Sunday, September 24, 2006

Back home with the ancestors

I've been asked to write an essay on my ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons, to be included in the back of HEXE when it is published next September.

HEXE is my novel about a medieval woman accused of witchcraft; Mary Bliss Parsons was my 1600s Massachusetts relative who was thrice accused of witchcraft and acquitted.


Not something you hear too often. It's a fascinating story... it seems that her money and her looks had a lot to do with her ability to skirt the charge.

My parents have sent me some family history stuff, so I've been delving into that with great interest. And of course, as always when I'm researching, I've been getting waylaid, this time by stories of other ancestors. Tucked in with the Parsons family history is also the memoir of Benjamin Cressy, my seven-greats grandfather who fought in the Revolutionary War, as well as the autobiography of the seafaring orphan his granddaughter married.

Here's a bit from Benjamin Cressy's memoir of 1780, three years before the end of the war:

We were engaged that morning in putting our guns in as good order as possible, as they had got very wet the rainy night before. We did not run, yet marched a quickstep in order to gain the bridge that crossed a small river, but the enemy made their appearance on a rise of ground or hill directly on our right in less than gun shot. They hallooed and said, "Now you d-m-d yankees we will have you." Lieutenant Blake answered them and said, "Come on you redcoats, Black John is here." They understood this very well , for Black John had given them a number of dressings. We were then about half a mile from the bridge and the enemy formed a column of horse at the bridge in our front. There was an old mud fort breastwork within gun shot of the bridge and our brave captain Cushen marched us in there to rest our legs, as he said. [....]

When we had got into the old mud fort or breastwork we began a fire on the enemy between us and the bridge which continued for 10 or 15 minutes, and it was said we unhorsed eight of the enemy, but looking back on the road that we come up we espied a larger body of horsemen coming full speed in pursuit of us. Our Capt. ordered us to march out and every gun that would go off to load and not to fire before orderered; and being formed in a close column and the points of our bayonets for our flank guard we moved on a firm slow march a few rods and fired, broke the column of horse and they opened to the right and left and we marched over the bridge and drew off a number of the planks and every man of our party and prisoners, horses, &c got safe over and we gave three cheers.

Two of our men wounded, one Heath wounded by a ball that entered the bottom of the heel of his foot, one Andris wounded across the back of the hand. This small river had a very muddy bottom and the enemy could not cross it to pursue us and we returned to our regiment in triumph.

In another battle, he and his party were ambushed by the British, "and we poor fellows scattered like sheep without a shepherd in every direction, and with blood-hounds at our heels." That scene continues:

We run but a few rods when I was halted by "Stop, yankee, or I'll kill you." The first thought I had was that he had fired off his gun. I turned my head round when I was on the full run and had a fair look at his face, and he was not but a few jumps behind me and not one of our party to be seen. He was a large stout looking fellow, red face, red hair, and I remember his looks to this day. But I out-run him and turned round a small rise of ground out of his sight and crawled under a thick bunch of bushes or sprouts that sprung from a white maple stump. I lay there a short time and two of the enemy passed close by my hiding place on the other side. It appeared they were hunting up the scattered fugitives. The reader will better judge of my thoughts and feelings than I can describe them. When I could distinctly hear the shrieks and cries of the dying and wounded. When these two men were passed by out of my sight I shifted my quarters into a low piece of ground very thick with bushes and briers. There I lay till after twelve o'clock that day, but the course of nature seemed to be changed, for the sun was risen out of the southwest to me.

After the war, Benjamin's story is grim, with two wives dying young and the typical yet still heartbreaking loss of children in infancy, and a brother who continually tricked him out of money and property. Hard times!

I feel so lucky to have these records from the past. I'm also surprised how modern Cressy's memoir sounds, for having been written over 200 years ago. My parents have a painting of Cressy, one of those where because of the way the eyes were painted, anywhere you stand in the room it appears he is looking right at you. I used to get creeped out by that painting. But now that I know the sadness of his life, the next time I see it I'll give him a friendly nod.

Naptime for royalty

The effigies at St. Denis were incredible. Every bit as spooky and magisterial as you would expect.

Marie Antoinette is buried here (remains having been exhumed from initial burial site) under a fairly modern and bland plaque. No effigy for her or Louis, but there are two nice statues of them.

St. Denis also had something to do with Joan of Arc... she laid down arms here or something? I have to google it because I didn't understand the plaque in French on the door. Wish my comprehension was a hundred times better... but it is certainly improving! Since I've returned, I've watched two episodes of French in Action and I think I get it better than I did before this trip!

She's light as a feather

but stiff as a board.

Here's a tour at the St. Denis basilica, looking much like a slumber party seance. Unfortunately, all in rapid French, so I could only pine for information.

I'm back home in Oakland, still somewhat fighting jet lag five days later. It's great to be back; went to an A's game yesterday, walked down to my neighborhood cafe today, saw a movie at the Parkway last night, walked in the redwood forest... some of my favorite Oakland things to do.

And now that I have reliable access again, I am supplementing old posts with the photos intended for them, and adding a few more.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Visit my website and click on "Contact" so you can email me. I want to confirm everything got to you, you green-skinned poet.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Last post from Paris

I ate dinner at a sushi place near Gaiete. Kitty korner from me was the "New Sex Paradise" peep show, which no one ever entered or exited as long as I sat there (maybe everyone was at the Old Sex Paradise). And directly opposite me was a hookah house. I watched a very large man smoke enough to stupefy a gorilla.

And now, I shan't post anymore. Even if the most exciting and outrageous thing happens to me in the next six hours before I go to the airport, I will have to only mull it over and tell it to my friends.

Oh, who am I kidding? I'll probably post at my layover in New York.

Musee de l'Homme

Despite being askance that there's no accompanying Musee de la Femme, I took the Metro over to Trocadero to see this museum. My guidebook had promised an anthropological extravaganza, with dioramas a plenty, and an interesting survey of the history of medicine. It also warned to go soon, because the museum might close and its contents distributed to other museums.

Well... maybe I was too late. The majority of its exhibits had closed, and they were only offering three measly exhibits with amorphous names like "Night of Man" and "All Parents, All Different." There was absolutely no information about what these exhibits might entail, and the woman at the counter was an abject diorama herself. She looked like she'd rather shoot me than tell me what those three exhibits were.

(And remember, I'm always trying my French here, so this wasn't a case of Disdain for Those who Won't Speak French.)

I took a cue from her miserableness and decided to give the museum a miss.

So let's recount:
Sewer museum makes me nearly lose my cookies, and I beat a hasty retreat.
Musee de l'Homme is a ghosttown guarded by a meanie.

What should any self-respecting traveler do but... shop? I had a great time clothes shopping. I bought three shirts, a dress and two naughty sets of gartered hose. I felt bad Kirsten was missing it -- she is really way more of a shopper than me, but she got a cute shirt and jacket in the short time she was here.

Maybe a clothing store is the equivalent of the Musee de la Femme.

WHY did I go to the sewer museum?

I thought it'd be kind of edgy to go to the Musee des Egouts (sewer museum), and perhaps helpful for my research.

But as soon as I was descending the stairs and the smell was already beginning, I started thinking, "Maybe this is a bad idea."

An English language tour had just started so another guide hustled me to it. I was just in time to hear the end of a very fascinating anecdote about a purple crocodile that is now in the Berlin Zoo. When the guide finished and we began walking to a new spot, I asked the woman next to me what the story had been with the croc. She said, "I didn't hear it myself. I just got a cochlear implant."

I smiled widely and said, "My friend has one and he wrote a book about it. Do you know Rebuilt, by Michael Chorost?"

She said, "I read it right before I got the implant."

Very intriguing and I wanted to learn more so I could report back to Mike, but the guide was already beginning her next spiel, an in-depth portrait of the machine used to clean the sewers. (actually, it was interesting. They use no motors in the sewers, only hand-pushed scrapers. If the men step in a bunch of congealed fat, it will release toxic gas and so they have 10 minutes of oxygen, to last until they get up their manhole, which are located every 30 meters. They used to use canaries but now have a little electronic device for detecting gas.)

And then, and then, and then.... man! We were looking at a flowing river of sewage and I had to walk away from the group, pressing my coat against my mouth to not gag. I tried to stick with the tour, I tried, but ultimately fled. I think I was only there about 10 minutes total. I can't believe I voluntarily subjected myself to that and paid for the privilege!

In short: sewer museum--not for me.

**** Post script.
I wanted to say what happened after I left the museum. I became concerned that I might've, in my short time down there, taken on the fumes and odors of sewage. I tried to find a smoker so I could perambulate in his/her cloud of smoke, but alas the one time I wanted smoke blown in my face I couldn't find it! And I worried that when I boarded the Metro, the hapless person sitting next to me would be overwhelmed by my "presence."

Ironically, I instead strolled a fancy street, walking past Dolce & Gabbana, Dior and Chanel. How fabulous to tremble past these places convinced one is reeking of sewage!

I saw Sephora and had the stroke of genius to go there and let 'em give me all the perfume sticks they wanted.

On the Metro, I thought, "Gosh, that person next to me has such a lovely perfume," and it wasn't until I was climbing the stairs to leave the station that I realized the loveliness emanated from me. Thank you Sephora!

Last thought: the pamphlet for the museum recommends that you wash your hands before leaving. In fact, as an escapee from my tour, I asked a guard for the bathroom to wash my hands and he agreed, "It's very important."
Should such a thing exist if it is "very important" that you wash your hands afterward?

La torchiere

Here is the replica of the Statue of Liberty's torch, the exact size! It's at the Pont de L'Alma, where there is also some flowers and memorabilia around Princess Diana's sad death in the tunnel.

I forgot to blog about the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, but it was very much on my mind. CNN was going to replay its broadcast of the day, which made me think some poor mushbrain would think we were under terrorist attack again. I had a dream related to jumping. I'm so sorry for the families hurt that day, and I'm sure five years feels like a heartbeat away.

Le wifi ne marche pas

The agony of a spotty wifi connection! This was to be my last blogging session before I return to the U.S. first thing tomorrow... but blogger isn't loading my photos.

I suppose I can go ahead and post textually and then add in the photos once I get home.

Basilica St. Denis

I went yesterday (Sunday), on patrimony day, when all the monuments are free. A great idea, but it meant the ticket kiosk was unstaffed, so I couldn't get an audioguide in English: free but incomprehensible. Also, every bored little French child was there, wailing and complaining, blocking views for history geeks like me who would've really rather just paid full price.

But! This place is cool. Lots of kings and queens are buried here, many with wonderful effigies marking their spot. Here are the feet of Francis I and Claude de France.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Bonjour Dina, Olivier et Mister Book

Tonight I decided to take a different street, a promising one, near my hotel and it was wonderful. I saw a thousand restaurants I can try tomorrow. I also saw a brightly painted green-fa├žade bar. I walked past it twice before I decided to go in. And I had a great time!

Inside, a couple was playing guitar and singing French songs (one I caught was, “it’s snowing in my heart”). The interior was fabulously campy: with disco balls and Christmas balls hanging from the ceiling, blood-red walls with all kinds of paintings on them, and a dog the size of a loaf of bread with a little barrette in his hair.

The couple stopped singing and did a kind of trivia quiz, naming characteristics of someone and trying to get people to guess who it was. By the time I caught onto the nature of the game, they’d already done two people, so I focused in on the third. Based on my convoluted sense of what they said, I wanted to guess Mata Hari, but the answer was Josephine Baker. Close!

They distributed lollipops to everyone who participated in the game and also to someone who understood every twelfth word they said (me). Then Dina, Olivier and Romain came in to share my table and we had a lovely talk, being very forgiving of my butchered French. They are on their way to California, so I hope we can raise a glass again on the other side of the world!


Bird by itself

Since I was eating an apple, I gently spat out a few bits for this bird to eat, but like a true Parisian, he only wanted bread. (That's not my apple next to him, but rather a spent match and god knows what)

Birds with kids

Notre Dame birds

See them hovering by the hands, wings all a blur?

Notre Dame silver madonna

Since my wi-fi (pronounced here in Paris as wee-fee) is finally behaving the way it should, I'll go back and post some photos I meant to with the original post.

So here's the Madonna from the treasury.

Techno Vache!

Satan's cow, this one's for you! (you know who you are)

confetti at techno parade

Neon cowgirls at techno parade

Saturday: secure your every bit

I did a walking tour of the Marais through Paris Walks. They are absolutely wonderful. I’ve done three walks, with three different guides, and they were all anecdotal, interesting and totally worth it. The best guide so far was Peter Caine, the one who runs the company with his partner Oriel. He was very British and funny.

Then, as I sat to eat lunch, I saw the police putting up tape to close streets. I asked the person next to me and she said there was going to be a Techno Parade! So I went a few streets over to watch it. It was formidable! Each “float” had a different DJ and dance crowd with it. I watched and danced for a long time. Although at times the parade was sparse (see the stilt walkers), the last float and its pushing overflow crowd made me feel a little Who-at-the-Riverfront-Coliseum so I took refuge in a doorway. This parade was to benefit No Famine, so I bought a pin.

One guy on a float threw me a condom. Labeled both in French and English, it says “Toujours un coup d’avance! Bit Defender: Secure your every bit.” I wish Alan was here to defend himself.

Friday: up again

After my glum dinner, I thought of going back to the hotel, but on a whim decided to see if I could catch the Eiffel Tower doing its sparkly dance. And I did! I love you, Eiffel Tower! You are super sparkly!!!

Then I walked along the Seine for a while. It was late when I got back.

Friday: down

By dinnertime, my high had worn off and I was sad that I was in Paris without Alan and now, without Kirsten, who had flown home. My friend Naomi termed this my “withoutmyhoneymoon.” I sat in a restaurant eating dinner, morosely staring out to the sidewalk, thinking I probably looked like the Absinthe Drinker we’d seen at the Musee D’Orsay.

Friday: still up

Went to the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned for a few months before her execution. They have rooms showing the three levels of cell available. Here is the pailleurs, lowest lovel, where the poor guys sleep on straw. The mannequins express how uncomfortable it is, although now that I think about it it’s tough to get a mannequin to look like it’s comfortable. They also have a mock-up of Marie’s cell with guards spying on her over a little fabric screen.

Friday: up

Friday started out great. I emerged from the Metro on my way to the Conciergerie, but there was beautiful old Notre Dame, and as soon as I looked at it the bells started ringing. I was overcome with joy, thinking “This is what I love about Paris… the ancient sounds, the sense of history that envelops you…” I sat down to eat my apple and enjoy the sight of that venerable edifice.

There are tiny little birds that live in the bushes in front of the church, and they will sit on your hand for bread. I had fun trying to capture this with my camera. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and a picture is worth a thousand words.

I went inside and was awed again at that eglise. For the first time, I paid the separate admission to enter the Treasury and saw some of the wonderful reliquaries and a silver Madonna and child.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Chapel at Versailles

Last installment of the Versailles pictures. (Scroll down; Blogger posts reverse chronologically).

This is the chapel that renders Versailles asymetrical; it towers over the right wing with no equivalent on the left.

And now I must draw this blogging session to a close. More later!

Relocation made easy

When you're Jeanne de Bourbon, queen of France in 1377, you are powerful enough to simply pick up pesky little churches and carry them around.
I guess this is why they call it Crown Relocation!

Bed versus bed

Here are Marie's beds from (a) Versailles, and (b) Petit Trianon. Which one looks more sleepable to you?

Marie's theater

This trip is really a working trip for me; I'm gathering info and atmosphere for a new novel. So I've been paying lots of attention to Marie Antoinetteisms both at Versailles and in Paris (next stop: Conciergerie).

I also saw the new Sophia Coppola movie here in Paris. It's hard to ignore subtitles even when they're in a different language! I enjoyed the movie but thought it glossed over Versailles: no one had fleas, no one was pissing in the hallways...

Anyway, I'd never before seen Marie's little theater where she performed for friends. It is incredibly lovely with the scenery currently on stage, a verdant woodland path that looks like one at Versailles. The theater is behind the Petit Trianon, Marie's refuge from the crazy court life at Versailles, and only holds maybe 50 people? I should have counted the seats.

Also on the grounds at the Petit Trianon are the Rock, a pseudo grotto with running water built for her. I loved that and thought of a scene I could set there. (It also reminded me of the fake cliffs at Parc aux Buttes Chaumont, if I spelled that right, which I also really liked. Why do I like fake natural things?)

She also had a tiny chapel and numerous pavilions tossed around the grounds... it was a total playground. NOT to mention... the hameau. Which makes me wild with envy. Why couldn't **I** have a tiny mill on a brook, and swans, and a little tower with an eensy, tiny winding staircase that encircles it, and goats and sheep of a certain size and cuteness?

At the hameau (which means hamlet), Marie pretended to be a peasant (ominous irony), dressing as a shepherd. I've heard that they perfumed the animals so the smell wouldn't offend her nose. I read in another book that although she enjoyed the playacting, selling milk, cheese and vegetables from the hameau actually raised money for Versailles and was a real enterprise. It bears more research.

Unfortunately, I have no photos of the hameau. The memory card was full and I was too zonked to review the pics and delete some.


Cue David Bowie.

Kirsten had me take this picture because apparently leopard print is again in vogue, and she thought this portrait was funny. I don't happen to remember the man's name or even where the portrait hung (in the Petit Trianon, maybe?)

Also got to love his lavendar cravat and cuffs... this guy's got it going ON.

Woman statue

I've no idea who this woman is, if she indeed is someone specific, rather than just "woman with flowers."

She is one of the hundreds (thousands?) of statues that dot the gardens at Versailles. There's almost so many you can't even see them anymore, if you know what I mean. Just one would totally enrich a garden and invite thoughtful repose...throw fifty at a visitor at a time and you just walk by them.

But I thought she was lovely and I did take some time to notice her.

My favorite statue at Versailles

I love the statue of Poseidon's horses pulling his cart up out of the water... the horses are half-submerged still, hooves rearing in the air, and the effect is really cool.

We paid a few euros extra to see the fountains turned on and hear music piped through the gardens. The water sprays are exceptional for the horse fountain, because they look like water the horses themselves are kicking up. Add in a rainbow, and I felt like the official court photographer.

We've found Marie's head

One of the questions I've had in Paris is: what happened to all the heads? I saw the mass grave at Picpus where the headless bodies went... but what about the rest? What does one do with 1,300 heads? (and that's just the Place de la Nation heads, let alone Place de la Concorde)

I saw some plaque I half understood. It seemed to say that people wondered if the heads were paraded on pikes but no one knows for sure. If only blogging existed back then!

Anyway... the friends we have stayed with several nights are ex-pats Karen and Dave and their child Elodie. Karen and Dave are ***wonderful*** and I wish I had known them better when they lived in San Francisco! Elodie is a true bilingual charmer and an incredible artist. Kirsten saw some paint/bleach print she made and vowed to uncover the technique for her own work!

Elodie has a head she got from a friend of the family who graduated from cosmetology school. Unknowingly, she named it Marie and her parents had a good laugh at that. I was there for the "big reveal," as they say on reality TV, but she seemed unfazed at the idea that her mannequin might be Marie Antoinette.

Her parents say they have been totally creeped out by Marie because if you glimpse her at night in Elodie's room, she really does seem to be another person in the room, just hovering at the wrong height.... ew!

Pray that my trip gets better

Well, after arriving in Paris to find that our rented apartment was a tenement, then spending a week unsuccessfully trying to find another apartment (alternating between staying with friends and staying in a hotel), then going to the emergency room, I think this trip could stand improvement!

Don't worry, I'm all right but sort of bedbound today, so what better to do than download photos and post to my blog?

By the way, the French ER was wonderful. We each spoke muddled versions of the other's language and mostly found satisfaction. I was seen immediately by very kind people. At the end of the visit, they told me to return the next day to pay my bill. I smiled a little bit at the amount of trust involved in this arrangement, compared to the PPO Reign of Terror in the U.S.

This statue was one of the ones in the long hall of kings and queens at Versailles. I didn't happen to catch her name.

Monday, September 04, 2006

I'm a married woman!

Still don't have official photos from photographer yet, but here's an image from the rehearsal.


So much has happened recently that I've really behind in my blogging...

but several weeks ago our friends Chris and Shelly surprised us with a wedding shower that was INCREDIBLE. Shelly machiavellianed her way into locating email addresses for as many of our guests as she could track down, and there they were gathered in the living room shouting Surprise!

It was such an insanely wonderful day that I realized even if the wedding sucked, I would still be happy from the shower. Besides the fab cake above, Shelly cooked our Oakland faves, chicken and waffles. She only has a single waffle maker, so she literally spent hours cooking those for all the guests. What a labor of love, and what an amazing friend. And all the effort: totally worth it. We all gorged ourselves (word is her patented sugar bacon made at least one Jew seriously consider breaking down....)

We lingered in the backyard, enjoying a summery afternoon at lavishly appointed tables with linen tablecloths and small, perfect bouquets. It was heaven, surrounded by such wonderful friends... thank you guys!