Window shopping

Like many of you, my heart aches for Paris. It’s a place that inspires and confounds me from afar. I spent a week in Paris alone — my 40th birthday gift to myself —  and discovered that the Paris of my dreams didn’t always match up with the city’s actual moods and quirks. But the stories it gave to me and the secrets it revealed continue to stir my dreams and unfold in my writing. While the following essay is hardly an answer to the violence that played out last weekend, it is a collection of moments captured and relived on the page. Moments of a place in which I was happy, sad, moved, inspired and undone. Vive la Paris.

The French for window shopping, léche-vitrine, translates to “lick the windows.”

I only buy two pieces of clothing in Paris: a cheap T-shirt dress from H&M, and a scarf from a stall in a clutch of tourists stores selling post cards and Eiffel Tower key fobs. I buy the scarf because the weather keeps turning cold, even though it’s May, and the scarf I packed is too thin against the sudden rain.

In the Paris of my mind, I spend whole days shopping. Trying on wonderful things I can’t afford. In my mind, couture happens in boutiques, in proportions that make sense, and with a readily available vocabulary. In the Paris of reality, I only see couture in magazines and I have a vocabulary for ordering coffee, and even then only with moderate success.

I do try to shop a few times in the second hand store near my hotel. It’s a revelation. I love a good thrift shop anyway, and that such a thing exists in Paris strikes me as pure genius. Cast off sweaters and skirts, previously worn by stylish French women; surely the garments retain some of the aura of their previous owners. The clothes are heaped into bins on top of long folding tables, and the shoppers — a mix of coolly disheveled younger women and shrunken grandmothers in head scarves — muscle through them. There’s no order, no system to define by type or size or quality. And half way through my first bin, one passable sweater in my free hand, the shop closes.

In Paris, stores (at least low-end ones) don’t close in a, “We’ll be closing in 15 minutes. Please bring all purchases to the register” way. They close definitively, in an instant, with the lights off and the shoppers rushed out the door. If you didn’t get to pay, you’ll have to come back for it. I don’t make it back, though. The store is closed when I pass, first thing in the morning and after dark as I leave and return to my hotel.

There are other shops in the neighborhood — the twist of streets just outside of Montmartre. I picked the hotel believing it was in Montmartre, close to the Lapin Agile and the Sacre Cour. Instead, it’s one neighborhood over, next to the Cimetière de Montmartre and inhabited by young families who shop for groceries and walk children to school. There are bakeries with confusing hours and unpronounceable pastries, and there are tiny boutiques packed with the sort of clothes you’d buy in the mall, at Wet Seal or Icing. Cheap things, too short and too bright.

In Paris, there are tons of these stores, selling bandage dresses, miniskirts and gaudy t-shirts. Faux-leather boots and giant earrings. No one wears that stuff, though. Nor do they wear vintage clothes, as far as I can tell. Nothing twee or retro or rescued from a free box on the sidewalk. Everyone wears slim-fitting jeans and jackets in dark neutrals. Black, gray, navy blue and chocolate brown. Endless variations on the same basic theme. It should be boring, but it’s not, because it’s Paris and in Paris even boring things like jeans and jackets are cool.

Booksellers along the Seine

 I spend a lot of time watching people in their jeans and jackets. I sit in Cafés and in bars. I sit in bars that are also cafés. It’s hard to tell. Indoor smoking has been banned, so everyone sits in the outdoor seating, protected from the rain by plastic sheeting. To get inside, you have to walk through the smog. I order tiny glasses of Sancerre and Cotes du Rhone, sipping at the cut-gem wine while making meticulous notes in my journal about what everyone is wearing.

Not art or philosophy or slicing insights to be posted, later, on Yelp. Just clothes. My whole travel legacy comes down to notes on clothes.

I’m happiest when I’m sitting at a wicker table drinking something. I know what to do then. The rest of the time, in Paris, I’m lost and directionless and wearing the wrong thing. My hair is wrong, too. The persistent rain ruins my flat ironing, and then the flat iron overheats even though I’ve plugged it into an adapter. My hotel room reeks of scorch.

There’s nothing to do but carry on. I dress and leave the hotel in search of coffee, shedding a trail of burned hair slivers in my wake.

Surprisingly, the French don’t wear sunglasses. Hats, yes. But even when the sun comes out, no one but the tourists pulls out sunglasses. I go for as long as I can without mine, feeling conspicuous when I slide them on. Like I’m showing off. But it’s not like, without them, I blend in. Everywhere I go — to the fashion museum, to the Louvre, to the gardens and the Seine — I stand out, not in a good way. I’m the only one on the Pont Neuf with no one to kiss, the only one alone in line for the Eiffel Tower.

The only time I’m not alone is on the subway. Teenagers girls, hard and mean, leap out of nowhere to press behind when I go through the turnstyle. It’s a scam that only works in a crowd. But after the turnstyle, the long, confusing passageways leading to the trains are mostly empty. There’s the occasional busker or baffled-looking Englishman, and infrequent signs that sometimes reduce me to tears. But when the trains come at rush hour, the crowd swells and presses forward, filling in every space. There are so many people, it’s impossible to fall. I hold my bag close to my body and let myself be tumbled and borne to my stop. I body surf on personal waves of repulsion and exhilaration.

The last thing I buy in Paris is a raisin brioche. I never eat pastries at home, but this isn’t home. I discover the raisin brioche at the cafe near the Place de Clichy metro station three days before the end of my trip. It’s soft and just the right amount of sweet with something like custard cooked into the dough. Even if I haven’t found friends, or fashion, or enough words to order an omelet without embarrassing myself, I have found the carbohydrate equivalent of a torrid affair.

Sara Gruen on writing

These quotes were gleaned from an interview I did for a story in Mountain Xpress. You can read at article on the launch of Sara Gruen‘s new novel, By the Water’s Edge, here. Gruen is also the author of the bestseller Water for Elephants.

Photo by Tasha Thomas

Photo by Tasha Thomas

• It’s an extremely intense process for me, writing a book. It takes a lot, emotionally and physically. I get almost obsessive about the characters. I can’t sleep at night, [or] I dream about them. Sometimes I wake up and I’ve been working all night on a problem in the book; sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ve solved it.

• One of the things I love about the job is I get to find something that interests me and then spend a couple of years living it, researching it and finding out more.

• If it’s possible, I’ll go and immerse myself completely [in a place]. I like to approach my research sort of like a language immersion class. When I was in the [Scottish] Highlands, after I was finished for the day I’d park in the corner of the pub with my laptop. …I would eavesdrop. I’d pick up phrases. I’d be listening, absorbing the accent and the the turns of phrase because it’s a very distinctive dialect and I really wanted to capture that.

• Obviously I can’t live in WWII, but I did extensive research. The newspaper archives were helpful but equally helpful were the pamphlets that told women how to create new patterns for reusing the material from old dresses, or what to use if you can’t find shampoo. I got copies of the [Ministry of Food] cook books. I knew the rations so [my husband] and I tried to live on rations for a month. I think we lasted two weeks.

• I try not to let anything affect how I’m writing. Then I would be writing to please an audience and if you’re doing that, you’re second-guessing everything.

• I have to lock the door of my office and close the curtains. Everyone in the family knows that unless the house is on fire, don’t knock on the door. It takes me about an hour and half to get through my creative portal. That sounds weird. But to [get to] a point where I actually feel like I’m there, as opposed to here. Then I feel like I’m recording it rather creating it. I feel like I’m not watching a movie, but in a movie. That’s when I know it’s working.AT THE WATER'S EDGE_final jacket

• Starting the book, I have a vague notion of who I want to characters to be and what sort of roles I want my characters to play. Then I write them, and eventually they come to life. And then they take over. Any idea I had for them, they throw away. They change the plot, they turn out to be different people, they have different backgrounds, they fall in love with other people. Invariably I have to go back and throw out the first third of a book. That’s absolutely a given.

• I hate when I have to throw 30,000 bleeding, screaming words on the floor. I have a leftovers file, because if I had to delete things, I would never do it. The theory is I could recycle. I’ve never recycled anything, but it allows me the freedom to get rid of things.

• When I’ve finished a book, I have what I call a springboard book. It’s my second-drawer book. I start working on that book again and eventually, so far, and idea will hit me from the blue. Clearly [the springboard book] doesn’t have the same pull on me, because I’ve never finished it.

Montezuma’s revenge

Montezuma’s revenge

You don’t get sick all at once in Mexico. It happens in stages, which means even though you went knowing how common it was to get sick — traveler’s digestive disorders, as one website delicately puts it — you can remain in denial that it could happen to you. First there’s the vaguest sense of unease, and the sudden lack of interest in the sandwich you just ordered. And then the slight queasiness. But that can be attributed to the crowds and the sun. It’s carnival in Mérida and the streets are bottlenecked with parade floats and dancers and blasting music. There are swarms of people and vendors and the police who are less like police and more like a SWAT team with armored trucks and automatic weapons. Clowns, balloons, assault rifles. Old ladies in embroidered smocks, children in strollers, teenagers with complicated haircuts and pointy-toed shoes.

You don’t think you’ll go down. You’ve been fine up till that point — jogging, getting enough rest, wearing sunscreen, eating healthy foods. If you do get sick it’s because of the green juice, which you bought to feel even healthier. So to be punished for that is unthinkable, especially when everywhere you look there are buckets of beer and meat bring shaved from a rotisserie. Margarita after margarita melty with crushed ice. People making terrible choices in what they imbibe, not to mention the angry sunburns of the tourists. But if you even think of the rotisseries with their cones of sizzling, slow-spinning pork, you feel dizzy with a deep-gut knowledge that something isn’t right.

Still, even if you do get sick it’s a matter of a trip the the bathroom and you packed Pepto in your first aid kit. You look for shade, sip from your already too-warm bottle or water, daydream of iced drinks. You get through the day, walking maybe 20 blocks to a restaurant you read about in the guidebook. It’s set in a crumbling mansion with a courtyard strung in fairy lights. It should be enchanting and maybe it will be later in memory. Maybe in the few photos taken of you, though already you’re grimacing, your forehead beaded and your hoodie zipped against a phantom chill. You order Enchiladas and a beer. The beer is cold but makes you break into a clammy sweat. Food smells are dismal: spoiled, overcooked, graying on plates. You shrink from your enchiladas when they arrive and walk to the bathroom instead.

At least you can still walk slowly. There’s no rush. A kind of creeping dread. Maybe one trip will be enough. Maybe you can return to your dinner.

But of course you can’t. The sickness progresses faster on the walk home. You stop at a store for saltines and Gatorade, you barely make it to the toilet at the bed and breakfast. There’s a complicated situation with the door lock, a dark garden to navigate, the small room that was so quaint and cheerful but is now only way too far from home. You lay, sweat-drenched and shaking, on one side and then the other. You try to find a sweet spot where you can drift off to sleep and dream of something other than seasick waves and slow-turning meat.

You do not die, but you almost wish you would. Only almost. In retrospect it’s terrible, but still. It’s not cancer or torture or incarceration or the myriad violences other people survive. It’s just bacteria and your body’s overly-dramatic reaction to that bacteria. You leave Mérida, hunched and pale, hair plastered to head, curled into a cab. You curl into a hard plastic chair at the bus station and then into a cushiony seat on the first class bus, blasting AC and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. You sleep in fits, waking to a sharp slash of headache. As much as you feel like you could throw up again, you don’t.

The sick comes on slowly and recedes with even less speed. Days pass before you dare to eat a meal and weeks pass before you can attempt anything with spice or character. Months before you can think of Mexico. Years before you can consider another trip. Before you can convince yourself that you’re smarter, better prepared, perhaps you’ve built up immunity, at least you’ll avoid the green smoothie.

Just beer and fried tortillas, a frat boy diet. It’s only for a week. Save your risk-taking for morning jogs through pretty towns with their cenotes and churches, their broken sidewalks and shy stray dogs.

The bus to Glasgow

A rare sunny moment in western Scotland, 2013

A rare sunny moment in western Scotland, 2013

Leaving Edinburgh is an escape only for the sake of escaping, not because it’s a place to run from. Edinburgh is both immediate and eternal, with its tangled old city and, in its not-so-new new city, the spacious Georgian apartments, shoulder to shoulder, fused into tidy rows.

Still, there’s more of Scotland to see. It’s highlands and lochs, its dramatic scenery and gritty, student-filled cities. And there’s the two hour stretch between Edinburgh and Glasgow — a suburban no man’s land where people live the kind of lives that probably don’t involve tartans or soundtracks scored by bagpipes. Or maybe they do.

The bus departs from the station in a belch of diesel exhaust. Only the locals board there. Tourists are oblivious to the city buses as they wait for their carefully mapped day excursions. Some plush coach that picks up at the Quaitch Guest House.

Quickly multistory apartment buildings give way to squat stone cottages with neat white doors. A pair of bay windows on each, because light matters. Old mixed with new, sometimes gracefully, but the city’s growth at its far reach is an ugly gash of mud and large equipment. Power lines across a gray sky, bus shelter at the end of the world.

Cemetery behind St. Mungo Cathedral (Glasgow).

Cemetery behind St. Mungo Cathedral (Glasgow).

Norton House Hotel, Ratho Station. A guy boards with a short Mohawk and someone’s initials — perhaps his own — inked behind his ear. D.W. in script. Villages rise and fall beyond the bus window. They are stunted and napping, like villages everywhere. Towns don’t buzz like cities do. Cities never sleep. Towns keep hitting the snooze button.
A sudden slice of sun. A bulbous black cab muscles along a dirt road. In the distance, rounded hills sit, iced thickly with snow. Roadwork at Livingston. Traffic crawls. The bus driver has a shaved head with the ghost of a widows peak and a pale scar. Stands of pines and bare trees ring a snow lake. Fields of snow rest, undisturbed by traffic or sun.

Bathgate: smell of the bus heater, which is too hot. The guy one seat up blasts Bollywood music through his earbuds. Witburn, Falkirk, Newhouse. Ruins of an elaborate stone bridge. Small town of two-story sandstone buildings, all unembellished. It’s like a housing development, only hundreds of years old, and town-looking because it’s not trying to look like a town.

Robbie Burns (foreground) and Sir Walter Scott (background), both wearing seagulls as hats. High style for statues in George Square, Glasgow.

Robbie Burns (foreground) and Sir Walter Scott (background), both wearing seagulls as hats. High style for statues in George Square, Glasgow.

Signs for rooms with en suite, fish with chips. There’s always the option for less (a room with no bathroom, fish without the side of fries) because here you actually can have less. It’s a viable option. Smaller cars, smaller refrigerators, less personal space.

A church on a hill with its tall steeple and floor-to-ceiling windows presides over a rectangle of ruler-straight graves. The rows could have been planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Airdrie, Motherwell: a very old man in the front seat clutches a ruffle of newspapers. He’s dapper in his pocket sweater and striped scarf, occasionally smoothing his haircut with his hand.

Chapelhall, Holytown: The sprawl begins. Warehouses, factories, a clutch of suburban homes. New houses, all tan with red roofs. Billboards and exits. Skinny white birch trees, cows grazing 11 kilometers from Glasgow’s city center. Signs about everything and nothing. Industry is a dream, but not a satisfying dream. It’s the construct of the anxious mind rather than the restful vision of meadows and groves.

There are no more meadows and groves. Instead: Car lot, church yard, graves that run a mile alongside a housing development. The mingling of past and future dead.

Lunch in Hendersonville

Lunch in Hendersonville

I’m good at staying on task and getting things done. I’m not a procrastinator. And that’s mostly great, except for when it’s not — when I miss tomato sandwiches and peach pies because I’m too busy to go to the farmer’s market. When I miss eclipses and meteor showers because I’m getting the recommended amount of sleep. When I stay late at my job every day because the work never ends. Infinity is not a loop, it’s a to-do list.

So my plan, to keep myself from missing October (and its particular quality of light, the electric charge in the air and the fire of foliage gathering momentum as it moves from the high mountains to the foothills), is to get out of Asheville each weekend. Even if only for the afternoon. Even if only for a drive to the next town. That’s how I ended up in Hendersonville.

What I tell my husband, as we move along Main Street at a crawl, is that it’s exactly like Asheville with the crowds and the window shoppers, only everyone is old. “And from New York,” he says. That may or may not be true. There is a booth at the craft fair that’s further clogging Main Street, where you can sign up for delivery of the New York Times.

Really, Hendersonville is nothing like Asheville. It’s cleaner and brighter. Its streets are wider and its parking is free. The handful of blocks that make up downtown are washed by cold air, bright sun and burnish blue sky. Each white tent in the craft fair is manned by a middle aged artist with boundless enthusiasm for earthenware, oil paintings and batiked clothing. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Women in whimsical glasses and matching whimsical clogs buy lawn art and wall hangings. Things for their mountain houses. There’s a real estate business every half a block selling mountain houses. There are doors to upstairs lofts on Main Street that claim to be vacation rentals. The town glitters with tourist money and antique stores.

20141005_160616_resizedEveryone is in the antique stores. (Everyone is everywhere — khaki-clad families eating ice cream despite the first chill of autumn.) They sift through arrowheads and lift ladder back chairs testing the weight. The antiques are post-Victorian and mid-century American. There’s no sign of Appalachia, but this isn’t where you go if you want Appalachia. I buy a vintage postcard of New York City and a wide-brimmed Fedora that costs too much but fits my head perfectly.

We eat in the Irish pub with the grouchy waiter who doesn’t seem grouchy, but apologizes for his grouchiness to the table behind us. “It’s just been one of those days,” he says. Our table overlooks the street where every third person walks by with a tiny dog. There are signs everywhere saying no dogs in the craft fair area, but no one cares. The bikers have dogs. The older ladies have dogs. A couple walks a longhaired dachshund, a man with a standard poodle stops to talk to a man with a toy poodle.

We take the long way back to the truck, criss-crossing Main Street, walking on the quieter streets and looking into the windows of businesses that are closed on Sunday. Most of them are modern and geared toward tourists. A few seem lost in time — a seamstress shop, a barbershop. I want to stay longer and daydream about what sort of shop I’d open. Vintage clothing is the obvious choice. Books are next, but there are book shops already. One of the antique stores has an entire upstairs nook packed full of books in a string of rooms as small as closets.

I could live in such a place as the book loft. Reading dusty volumes of poetry and collections of Indian recipes. William Blake and Ron Rash, Edith Wharton and Beverly Cleary.