Today’s piece comes from an album that my friend Thom or I discovered in 1976, before I went to Paris. It appeared in a bin of a cut-out records in a store in our college town of Bloomington, Indiana. The album was entitled, “Antique Provencal Instruments-Trouvers and Troubadors.”
The troubadours and trouveres were secular poets who arose in the south and north of France respectively starting in the 11th century. They were the first artists to write in the vernacular, that is the spoken language of the people instead of the official language of the educated, i.e., Latin. Their language eventually evolved into modern French, which is kind of interesting. You wonder if people were as upset about the “dumbing-down” of the Latin back then as people are today of things like Ebonics.
Gautier, who lived from 1177-1236, was a monk who and wrote “Las, las…” which is a short lament. It expresses the monk’s indignation at a robbery that took place in 1219, when thieves broke into a church and stole the relics of a one Saint Leocade. On the old Arion recording I owned, this piece was performed on a psaltery, which belongs to the harp family. It consists of a small sound box over which strings have been stretched. When plucked, and sometimes bowed, it produces a haunting tone. I’m not sure it that is how it was originally scored, but this recording is quite affecting. Just the thing to have playing on your ipod while roaming the streets of Paris (see article below).
Coincy Biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautier_de_Coincy
At Home in Paris
As I mentioned the other day, after I returned to Paris at the end of February 1977, I moved into the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. It sits in what was a 13th Century monastery on rue de la Bucherie on the Left Bank at the edge of the Seine overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral. The street got its name in because in the middle ages, logs (buches) were floated up the river for building and deposited at this site. Among those logs were the massive chestnut beams set into the ceiling of the bookstore.
The proprietor of Shakespeare and Company was a whispy-haired Bostonian named George Whitman, who claimed a Walt Whitman as a relative. One day, I repaired George’s bicycle, which pleased him immensely, and he loaned it to me. Ah how wonderful to ride a bike once more, and especially in Paris! I rode down rue du Rivoli, around the Place de la Concorde, past the Tuileries, up the Champs Elysees, over the Seine, in front of les Invalides, down Boulevard St Germain, through the Latin Quarter and back to Shakespeare and Company. God, I felt like a bird. Walking around Paris had its charm, but when you have the wind in your face and you breeze past the Louvre–what a sensation!
George was, as my friend Carmen would say, “a trip.” He stayed up until the wee hours of the morning reading and rose around two or three in the afternoon. He very rarely answered a direct question about what luminaries had frequented his bookstore, but as you walked around with him, he pulled out a first edition of some work signed by the author or to point out an autographed picture of some famous author who’d stopped by for a poetry reading on a Monday night. Once, he and I walked across the bridge to the Ile St. Louis to the far end of the island around the area where Baudelaire had lived. We rang the doorbell and after being admitted wee wound our way up a staircase to a doorway. Inside we were greeted by a friend of George, a book reviewer for some august magazine (or was it the New York Times?) who showed us into his beautiful living room whose high windows looked out through the weeping willows and plane trees over the Seine. He was selling George a number of books he had received over the past year to review at a fraction of their cover price.
On another occasion, George dragged me out of bed at some ungodly hour and we took a cab to the American Church of Paris. Once a year they had a bazaar, and George scooped up as many used books as he could. On our trip we were lucky–someone had donated several hundred copies of National Geographic which his customers always snapped up.
Though in his 60s and looking kind of frail, the summer before I met him, he had hiked across South America, armed with a machete and little money. One night, he claimed, he stumbled sick out of the jungle into an Indian camp. The natives took him in and nursed him back to health. I mean “nursed” quite literally. A new Indian mother actually fed him her own milk! What an adventurer, I thought and I lapped it all up.
The people who frequented the bookstore fell into about three or four categories. First were the travelers–college students, mostly, on their junior year abroad–who had heard about Shakespeare’s free lodging and had come for a long weekend from London, Koln or Rome. A second group were the wannabe artists and intellectuals like myself, devotees of Hemingway, James Joyce or (in my case) Henry Miller. Among the third group were French and American inhabitants of Paris who had either a certain fondness for George or who came to get their monthly fix of English literature and keep their English up.
Among the French, were a sweet old French lady who would sit behind the till and lecture to me about American racism and yell at George for creating an eyesore in front of the store. Another woman, named Colette, a cute tow-headed blonde of about 40, had a crush on George and used to cook for him. The fourth group were all the rest–piss artists, petty French criminals trying to rip the place off, and other seedy types.
Living there was a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me. Every Friday a new group of students would arrive, often quite cute girls, only to depart after a few days stay. I was constantly falling in love only to have my heart broken when they left. But nearly every night someone would be around to smoke cigarettes, drink wine, and stay up until the wee hours discussing philosophy, art, films, science, mathematics or literature. It was incredibly stimulating.
One day, I met a painter about my age named David Maes, who hailed from Canada. For some reason, he and I hit it off immediately and became close friends. He had chosen not to go to college in Montreal, opting instead to follow his bliss and come to Paris to paint. He lived in a small apartment on the Ile de la Cite and I visited him there once to view his works. He was teaching himself to paint in oils and produced huge, primitive oils of Parisian scenes-the man with the little wooden sail boats at the Jardins de Luxembourg, a view of the Ile de la Cite, or a sad scene of lovers parting at a train station. Soon after that, he left moved out of the apartment to stay in a building in the Marais, the medieval part of Paris which held a mix of Jews and North Africans and was where the new Centre Pompidou, or “Beauborg”, art museum had just opened. More of David later.
During my days at Shakespeare and Company, I continued to write prolifically, though nothing publishable. Instead, I focused on keeping up my correspondences–to my best friend, Thom and my old girl friend, Kristi, who were living in my college town of Bloomington, Indiana. Thom was exploring his sexuality and poured his heart and soul out in his letters to me. He tried to convince me that homosexuality was a choice, a notion that has all but now been disproved. He wished we would become lovers. I told him that though I preferred the non-threatening and in general supportive environment that we had enjoyed among all our gay friends at college, deep down, I could not choose to be a homosexual. There was just some part of me that told me the physical part was just right out.
It’s sad rereading the letters I wrote to Thom during my stay in Paris. Sad because I still didn’t understand that he was in love with me. Sad that being from a conservative Catholic family, he probably was wracked with feeling of guilt. Had he known that homosexuality might be genetically determined, perhaps he would have felt less ashamed. As it was, when he did come out a few years later, he did so with a vengeance, making up for years of celibacy. That was in the early 1980s, and like many who were promiscuous during those days, he contracted AIDS and died in 1991.
These days, many States in the US have passed gay marriage legislation. In other places, like France, it’s being hotly protested. In other countries, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. How far we’ve come in 36 years. How much farther there is to go. Now we know homosexuality is not a life style choice. Attitudes toward it have lead to untold suffering and death. In my case, the death of a dear friend, who taught me about Paris and was an explorer like me of the beauty to be found in classical music.