Erik Satie. Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois

In an earlier entry about Satie, I described how he gave humorous, and even surrealistic titles to his works. Today’s, Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois for example, means “Sketches and flirtations of a big, wooden simpleton.” When you hear the piece which starts out with a little oom pah-pah waltz, it instantly evokes a big, dumb ox or rube from the country lumbering along a French boulevard. Yet this section has a certain sweetness to it that makes you instantly feel a certain fondness for the subject.

The second movement in this short piece has a bit of discordance to it, which might evoke a bittersweet feeling about the simpleton’s lot. The last section is a meticulous anti-waltz where the rhythm goes pah pah oom instead of oom pah pah. The composer’s execution of the piece matches perfectly the playfulness of the title.

If you ever feel yourself completely flummoxed by life or like all your best laid plans go completely wrong for some reason, well this is the perfect music to put on.

Satie Biography

Innocent Abroad, in which I visit Cannes in 1977

Fortunately for me, I wrote lots of letters during my first trip to France as a student in 1977, and some of the recipients returned them to me. They jog my memory and today remind me that after just one day in the quaint, costal town of St. Raphael, I took a local train to the city of Cannes. These letters also make me cringe at what an affected and “precious” person I once was.

Cannes struck me as a strange city and I didn’t like it all that much. Its fame lies in the movie festival, which takes place in May. In February, when I visited, it seemed pretty dead, although the climate was for the most part mild.

Parts of the city were pretty. For example, the hill on which Notre Dame de l’Esperance stands really amazed me. The church has a Roman tower on one side and a rather interesting museum on the other. Below the church ran a maze of pathways and stairs, which led down, past and through villas, protected from the sun by their closeness to one another. It was so shady that green moss grew everywhere.

The museum beside the church was called the Musee de la Cestre, turned out to be a nice find. It was founded by a Dutchman in 1874 and housed a collection of artifacts from exotic and popular cultures that he had collected on his voyages. Inside, clean, but very old, glass cases displayed Oceanic, Chinese, Tibetan, Asian, Phoenician, Peruvian, Egyptian, Aboriginal, and Japanese items, some of which were quite ancient. There was an impressive collection of Phoenician tablets–written in Sumerian–that someone had dated 2000 B.C. The cases also contained several beautiful, Egyptian alabaster vases, visceral urns, and pots. Rome was represented by its glassware, Peru by its pottery dating from 800 A.D., China by its dishes, vases, and urns. The smallness of the museum made it all the more impressive considering the wealth of items it contained. It advertised itself as being a “Musee des Beaux Arts” but one dedicated more to “humanistic ends.”

What struck me was the naivete of the museum. It reminded me of a little museum that had once occupied an old house in my home town–full of antiques and curios that a rich dabbler had found interesting. I particularly liked the inscriptions that kept me quite entertained. One, which described a Tibetan flute, made from a human femur bordered on the poetic:

“One is made from a human femur which came from the body of a venerable personage, which confers upon it a religious value that is particularly emotive.”

This quote sort of summed up the tone of the entire museum. The collector tried to explain things. It was an altogether different experience at the time from the Louvre, where there were no such friendly explanations, and the size of the collection and the grandeur of the building dwarfed you. This little museum seemed all that a museum should be–a place where you can go to reflect on the wonder of people’s need to make things, beautiful things at that.

Besides this one nice refuge, the rest of Cannes seemed garish with its huge hotels everywhere that exploited the beach. Almost all of them looked the same, were high-priced, and had casinos. However, between the beach and the hotels lay a beautiful boulevard whose median was planted with palm and cypress trees and pansies.

I would have high-tailed it out of Cannes earlier, thinking Nice might be nicer, but while reading the paper one day I noticed that Manitas de Plata, a Flamenco guitar player, was playing at the Casino Municipale on Friday night. I decided I couldn’t miss that. The semester before, my friend Thom Klem and I had discovered this guitarist on one of our forays into “international” music. Thom had bought one of his records and we used to sit up late drinking wine and talk about this soulful music, rapt in wonder at the machine-gun like rhythm pounded out by the heels of the dancers.

The night of the concert, I went along to the Municipale Casino, which dated from the turn of the century and whose theatre resembled the classic old opera houses. It had about seven stories of box seats that ran along three walls and whose railings were ornate, hand carved and painted gold. The boxes were plush and hung with curtains and we sat on individual ornate sitting-room chairs, not fixed ones. The acoustics were good and Manitas de Plata (which means little hands of silver) was superb. On stage with him were his brother and brother-in-law, all thin, dark and proud men dressed in black tight trousers, white shirts and black leather vests.

After the concert, I strolled around the casino and toyed with the idea of gambling a little. The place had two separate sections, one for the hoi-polloi like myself and one for the high rollers. The posh crowd would stroll in dress in black tie and tails and disappear behind a grand old door, through which I once caught a glimpse of a very opulent room with a chandelier. The small fish were dressed like any middle-class French person of the day. They stood in an anteroom staring at a gaming table on which sat what looked like a roulette wheel with a gland case. It was about twice the size of roulette wheels in the movies, and the croupier used a ball about the size of a tennis ball. The wheel did not spin–instead the croupier threw a ball around its inner perimeter and it would fall into a black or red colored slot.

I thought, “what the heck” and went over and bought about $20 worth of chips. I watched to see if I could pick up any betting tips from my fellow roues, and decided to match the bets of a guy who seemed to be doing all right. In a few throws I had doubled my money. I felt elated–insulin pumped through my body, and I became convinced I could win. So I continued to bet, and in a few more throws, I was broke. But I still wanted to play. Fortunately, some reasonable part of my brain kicked in, but I remember having the feeling that one part of me actually had to forcibly drag the other out. It was that addicting! James Bond made it look so easy. But what was interesting was that the summer before, I had taken a class in probability where I learned how to calculate the odds of such games of chance. Our professor showed us that the ways the games are set up, the odds always favor the casinos. Otherwise they would not be in business. Yet despite that, a part of me wanted to go back and try it again. That put me right off gambling, and except for a lottery ticket about once a year, I never indulge.

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Erik Satie. Avant-dernières pensées

For today’s piece, I have chosen Satie’s Avant-dernières pensées. This, like most of his other works, is for solo piano. The title is a play on words. “Dernières pensées” would be something like “after thoughts.” “Avant,” means “before.” So this work, which is a series of three short little musical reflections, means “Before/After-Thoughts.”

Written in 1915, they are a bit more serious than many of his other works, perhaps reflecting his disgust with World War I in which he fought briefly. The three sub-pieces are dedicated his contemporary composers–Debussy, Dukas and Roussel. Together they form a perfect piece to listen to when taking a walk through the back streets of one’s memories, a I will now do.

A Walk on the Wild French Riviera

On the 31st of January 1977, after having stayed a mere two weeks in Paris, I left that city by train, bound for the south. You’ll never guess why. It was because of Simone de Beauvoir. Before I had left for France, my friend Thom Klem gave me the first volume of her autobiography, “The Force Of Circumstances” (La Force de L’Age). Beauvoir was the life-long confidant of the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and in her writing, she painted a picture of a purely open and equal relationship between two great minds. That became my ideal of relationships for years, which, like all perfectionist notions, eventually did more damage than good.

In Paris I had become close to a circle of Americans who’d graciously introduced me to the city. One of them, Catherine, was the daughter of an American who’d married a French woman while in France during World War II.

Catherine dated a garrulous American guy.  By the time I left for the South, they were already making wedding plans.

Because I had begun to adopt Beauvoir’s anti-bourgeois notions, Catherine’s relationship started to trouble me. Before I left, we got into an argument over Beauvoir. Her mother had told her that Beauvoir used to procure a constant supply of young girls for Sartre from among her students when she taught at the Sorbonne. I was outraged. This sounded like a bourgeois lie designed to discredit the intellectual and moral authority of the Left. It wasn’t until about 20 years later that I read that in some later biography of Beauvoir that the “rumor” had been true–Beauvoir even admitted it. It still strikes me odd, however, that one of the foremost feminists of ever, really, could have done that. And since I was so arrogant in my youthful attitudes, that led to my rupture with Catherine and her circle.

So I left Paris under somewhat inauspicious circumstances. I boarded a train one night at the Gare d’Austerlitz and made my way down the narrow corridor with my huge suitcase to my compartment. It was empty and I rejoiced in my solitude. I had come down with a bad cold and had one of those sore throats that feels like a knife sticking in the back of your throat. On top of that, I had a bad, hacking cough. I looked forward to a quite night’s sleep.

After I had snuggled up against the wall of the train, the door to the compartment slid open and a whole family from the south of France piled in. Grandpa wore the traditional blue of a working man with a little “casquette” hat. Off his mouth hung a Gitane, “Mais” cigarette, a harsh unfiltered cigarette rolled in corn-based paper (for added flavor, I guess). He tipped his hat as he walked in and sat down. His wife followed, with her babushka scarf over her head, carrying a picnic basket. I believe another husband and wife, the son and daughter-in-law, then entered with two pre-teen kids. They were nice enough, though they spoke in a rapid, southern dialect that I could not follow.

After we got moving, they broke out the picnic basket that they had provisioned with salami, bread, cheese, grapes and oranges and invited me to partake. The only bad thing about the their presence was the old guy’s cigarettes, which he proceeded to smoke the entire trip. He meant no harm. In fact, as a gesture of kindness, before he lit up, he’d always offer me the pack and say “T’en veut?” to which I’d croak out, “Non, merci,” pointing to my throat, “J’ai mal a la gorge.” He never took the hint and removed himself to the hall the entire trip. So by the time we awoke the next morning, I felt even worse.

But then I looked out the window and the view made the 11-hour ride in an eight-person train compartment smelling shoeless feet, the strong black tobacco, and paté worth it. When I first caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean, from the train at Toulon, my heart leapt with joy. In the predawn hours, the sea was quite beautiful: a mist hung over the surface, which was pierced by huge, craggy rock formations that jutted up. White stucco houses with red tile roofs studded the hillside as it ran down to the shore.

After a while, as the sun rose, the mountains started to appear. Some were of granite with white craggy faces; others of a very red rock. Both were beautifully festooned with garlands of pine trees. Our train wandered between these two races of giants and through valleys with ancient farms composed of maybe three buildings constructed god knows how long ago with motley colored stones. The valleys were just waking up, and over many hung a curtain of mist, with parts of their vineyards exposed.

As we approached St Raphael, we lost the sea, but we were compensated for the loss by the site of the hills covered with a profusion of gnarled olives and mimosa trees. I hadn’t known this, but the mimosa has an incredibly yellow-almost sulfur-flower. The flowers are composite, made up of hundreds of individual florets, about the size of chamomile. These clumps of yellow blanket the tops of the trees, so that the hill I saw looked as if someone had sifted sulfur down on top of them.

We passed Frejus–an ancient Phoenician village–and landed about two minutes later in St. Raphael. I took the first hotel I could find–a whopping 50 francs (about 10 dollars at the time)–and crashed into one surely what was one of the most comfortable beds I’ve been in for weeks. I slept for four hours, showered, and decided to take a walk, in spite of the fact that I had a pretty bad sore throat. I walked up to Fréjus–sort of well known for the Roman ruins and a 12th century church and cloisters. However, when I got there, I felt pretty weak, since I hadn’t eaten since the night before, so I stopped at a café and wolfed down two croissants and an espresso. The café was outside the gates to the ruins. I was surprised to find that the man behind the bar didn’t have an espresso machine and instead made the coffee with instant Nescafé.

I got into a small discussion with the man behind the bar about visiting the ruins. He advised against it without a guide, since there were muggers about. I decided that, since my throat was in pretty bad shape, and since I felt pretty nauseous, I had better head back to St. Raphael. On the way back, I saw the ruins of what was once a Roman aqueduct and a huge gateway. Both were made out of a brick that been fashioned out of the red, clayey earth. They had now taken on the warm dullness of worn terra cotta.

The appearance of the ruins surprised me. They sat in the midst of pretty unkempt fields that were bordered by equally seedy-looking dirt road. I thought it a bit disrespectful that they weren’t in the middle of well manicured, picturesque parks.

At a news agent on the way back to my hotel, I saw some post cards of Frejus and realized that I had missed a huge mosaic and a nice stadium and amphitheater. I would have gone back the next day, but a thing happened which made me decide to leave this area and I had to catch the train at 8:23 the next morning. I also missed out on the St Raphael church, which my guidebook described as having many Byzantine elements in it.

For dinner, I went to the local market and picked up some paté made with morel mushrooms, some wine, bread, and a half kilo of oranges. When I got back to my room, I sliced into one of the oranges and had a start: the flesh was a purplish color. I opened another and another. They were all the same. It seemed like some kind of bad omen, so I threw them out. Much later, I learned that they were “blood oranges,” and were quite prized as being especially sweet and juicy.

After dinner, I went out to look for a little cinema club, which for one night was showing a film by Visconti. I missed the address–or actually read the address of the club which was sponsoring it instead of where it was actually being shown–and found myself on the other side of the railroad tracks. After walking for not more than five minutes, I was accosted by a young north African man about my age on a mobillette. He asked if I was hunting for something. I told him that I was going to Rue Victor Hugo. “Ah,” he said, and told me to go around the corner to my right. He said he would meet me at the next block to the south since the road down which I had to walk was one way. I turned the corner and eventually caught up to him. He started asking me where I wanted to go, and I told him #7 Rue Victor Hugo. He then said that if I needed a place to sleep, I could come and sleep with him. For some reason, I didn’t catch on right away. Perhaps it was due to his accent, but I didn’t comprehend, or perhaps I did, but didn’t want to believe that I was being propositioned. So I told him that I already had a room, but then he offered to come home with me.

For some reason, things didn’t quite click correctly in my mind, for when he mentioned something about “pédé” all I could say was ” pédé?” “Pédé?” ” Qu’est-ce que ca veut dire? Je ne comprends pas.” Then, once again, he pointed to the place where he was staying and asked me if I wanted to come and stay with him.” Finally, the light went on.

“Ah,” I said. “Oh,” I said. “Non, merci,” I said. “Ca va pa. Au revoir, Monsieur.” And we parted. I think I left him a little bewildered, or at least he looked so. Though at university I had many friends who were gay, being all alone in France and having that happen spooked me and so I decided to leave the next morning for Cannes.

 

Erik Satie: Trois Gnossiennes

Michael D**, whom I met at the French House cafeteria in 1975, had a friend named Thom Klem, who often joined us for meals at the table where all the people from the French House sat. Klem came from South Bend, Indiana. His grandfather had bought the Coca-Cola franchise in town and ran the bottling plant. Almost everyone who ever did that became millionaires, and Thom’s parents lived in a posh, but not ostentatious part of town.

Thom was majoring in Chinese language, but he, too, spoke French, and he also had a smattering of Spanish. His minor was history, and though he loved reading that, he also read just about anything else. He had a rocking chair in his room, and many evening you could find him there, nose stuck in a book.

Thom and I became fast friends. Like me, he showed enthusiasm for any new body of knowledge, especially off-beat and arcane ones. In addition, he shared a love of cooking, which has always been a hobby of mine of mine. Like almost everyone else in the French House, he had studied in France, but he had also spent a semester in Taipei, Taiwan, so in addition to haute cuisine, he could do a mean stir fry.

Thom was a kind of mentor and partner in crime to me. I had inherited a number of early 20th century fountain pens from my grandfather, and it turned out that Thom prided himself on only writing with fountain pens. Once he came to my room with a great discovery. An old bookstore in Bloomington was going out of business, and they were selling of an old cache of fountain pens from the 40s and 50s. (The bookstore had once been a restaurant called the Gables, and local legend had it therein Hoagy Carmichael had penned Stardust.) Upstairs, from a dusty old case, a dusty old woman produced a box of pens which we rifled through, buying about 3 or 4 a piece. Some took cartridges. Others had ink-encrusted bladders. A number had a very complex capillary system for drawing up ink. We took them back to his room and got a number of working, although, for weeks afterwards we tended to have stains on our index fingers.

In food, Thom was always exploring new and odd tastes based on his literary excursions. Once he read that some author was fond of drinking a warm glass of milk before bedtime with a spoonful of vanilla in it. So that became a ritual of his for a while, but of course, only after having tracked down the best, pure vanilla extract. Another time, someone else had expressed a fondness for red vermouth, and so he methodically went through ever type of the apéritif the local liquor store had to offer before settling on the one that suited his tastes–Noilly-Pratt by the way.

Perhaps, he was a bit of an anachronism, but from him I learned the pleasures of small, material objects, and the little rituals that make life rich. He taught me the joy of buying a nice sheet of linen writing paper, getting out a fountain pen, cleaning it, filling the reservoir, shaking the excess ink off, and then writing a letter in long-hand. Later, when I went abroad for the first time, he and I corresponded in long-hand almost daily.

Maybe that is why I associate Thom in my mind with Trois Gnossiennes by Satie. I remember listening to it one day in the room of either Mark Z*** or Cynthia C***, and all of us were touched by its poignancy. Satie was an old guy before Debussy and others discovered him playing in a bars and championed his simple sounding but complex melodies. And maybe that was what drew me to Klem–his unassuming air, but complex interior life.

When Thom died of AIDS in the early 1990s, I sat down to write his mother a letter of condolence. Without thinking, I bought some nice paper, cleaned my old fountain pen, and sat down in a quiet place to write. Suddenly I realized that he had taught me how to do that. After I became an adult, he was the first person near my own age to die. So here’s to you, Thom. I’ll write more about you later.

Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Erik Satie: Gnossiennes from Amazon

Erik Satie: “Trois Gymnopédies”

In the late 1960s in middle school, my Musical Buddha, Kerry Wade, introduced me to many pieces that I feel changed the direction my life.

One day, Kerry asked me if I’d ever heard Ciccolini play Satie. Now “Ciccolini” was the stage name of Chico Marx, so I thought Kerry was referring to him. But he told me that Aldo Ciccolini was a pianist who had recorded the complete piano works of Satie. When I asked who Satie was, Kerry was off on one of his flights describing French music, art, café life and fin de siecle Paris. Eventually, I went on to major in French literature and lived in a bookshop on the Left Bank of Paris, but that’s for another day.

Trois Gymnopedies
were the first three tracks of Ciccolini’s Volume I, and when Kerry cued up the disk, I was completely mesmerized by the piece. It has such a simple, yet haunting feeling to it. Sad but light. It turned out that I had actually heard the song before. A popular 60s group named Blood Sweat and Tears had performed it on one of their albums. An orchestral version by Debussy’s of the first two showed up on a 45 rpm disk that someone had left backstage, when I worked as a theatre hand in a high school production of The Miracle Worker, a funny juxtaposition considering the source of the music.

Turn of the century Paris was full of Dadaists and Surrealists who were against logic and formalism and loved the spontaneity of American jazz. Satie was the son of two composers, a French father and Scottish mother. He studied at the French Conservatory for a year and dropped out to play music in bars and cabarets. At the age of 40, he went back and studied for three more years with the composer d’Indy, who’d started his own music school and who championed both older music and the newcomers like Debussy.

Satie’s music suited the intellectual climate of Paris. There is a French expression from the time period, “epater les bourgeois,” which means “to shock the middle class.” He composed an orchestral piece called Parade which is full of sirens, gunshots, and other raucous sounds. As a kind of homage, Man Ray included Satie in one of his films– playing chess.

I think Kerry was drawn to Satie because of the composer’s iconoclasm. Kerry loved to flaunt convention, but there was always something playful about him that seemed very Satie-like. Satie’s playfulness didn’t stop at the non-traditional tunes. He also gave them funny titles like “Before-After Thoughts,” “Automatic Descriptions,” “Dried Embryos,” “Pieces in The Form of a Pear,” and “Sketches and Annoyances of a Big Wooden Simpleton.” Maybe these very visual titles resonated with Kerry.

I know that many of the reasons that I studied French and went to Paris was to soak up whatever remained of the bohemian life of Paris from between the wars. And you know what? It’s still a great place, which I probably would never have cared about had I not heard this music.

Erik Satie. Parade

For today’s piece, I have chosen Erik Satie’s Parade. Satie supposedly started as a bar room pianist whose work caught the attention and was championed by Debussy. His earlier compositions were stripped down and economical, which style was a reaction agains the overblown works of Wagner. Though sparse, his works were in no way simplistic and reflected the complex tonal qualities of the impressionists like Debussy. Some of his pieces, like the famous Gymnopedies are strikingly haunting and affecting.

But Satie knew he was under-educated, and in his 40s, he began studying composition under d’Indy and Roussel. From this period comes today’s piece, the music for the Cubist ballet, Parade. The mere description of this piece makes my head swoon–music by Satie, sets and scenario by Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, and staged by Sergei Diaghilev, the empresario of the Ballet Russes. The piece is designed to tweak the bourgeois sensibility of the day and its love for the overblown Romanticism of Wagner. Parade is a kind of sound portrait of an actual parade, which incorporates the sounds of “found” objects like a pistol, a siren, and a typewriter.

Even today, nearly a century after its premier, it stands the test of time and still sounds daring and fresh.

Parading Through France

The first three months of 1977 in Paris proved cold and damp.  By March, a number of us living at Shakespeare and Company in Paris thought we might head South to warm our bones.  We chose Spain because we’d met some Basque girls, who one night cooked us paella. Ingeborg, the German girl I had a crush on, wanted to go to Barcelona and hop a ferry to Majorca. Chris, the guy she was doting on, was up for it.

Barcelona appealed to me as well because I knew it to be the native city of the Spanish Art Nouveau architect, Antonio Gaudi. His church, the Sagrada Familia, had caught my attention in some art book and I thought it would great to explore some of the other apartment buildings he had designed in the city. One had appeared in an Antonioni film called The Passenger which I had seen the semester before.

To prep myself, I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Looking back now, that was a good choice since the main character was the third wheel in a menage a trois, which is how I was feeling about Chris and Ingeborg.

We decided to hitchhike. For an American, that was a bit worrisome, but Chris and Ingeborg, who’d hitchhiked all over Europe, assured me it would be safe. Especially if the three of us went together. I remembered Thom Klem once telling me how he had hitched a ride with a truck driver in Germany. When he climbed in, he was treated to the music of Mozart, whom the truck driver loved. So I agreed.

We took the subway to the Gare du Sud and stood near the street that led out of town. It was pissing down rain, but soon we had a ride that took us to the start of the main superhighway heading south. There we stuck our thumbs out and after a short while, a big truck pulled up. In it was a friendly man, who said he had room for the three of us. We spent the day with him tooling along Seine past the towns of Sens, Auxerre, Dijon.

At Dijon we followed the Soane River south toward Lyons. I was surprised at the lush green countryside. Surprised too to see how canals ran parallel to the main routes and that they remained a viable means of freight transport. I was disappointed at one point when the driver pulled over to a roadside inn to get a bite to eat. Since it was early afternoon, it was completely empty, not like the 24-hour roadside nightmares along our own interstate system. Inside, we managed to summon up a drowsy patron, who said it was too early to get the espresso machine going for us. Our driver ordered what I heard as “deca.” I didn’t know what he meant. The proprietor pulled out a jar of decaffeinated instant Nescafé, put a teaspoon into a cup and poured some hot water in. It was vile. I think we bought some mass produced madeleines and we piled back in the truck.

By nightfall we reached the outskirts of Lyons, which was only about half way to the southern coast. Our plan was to call up an acquaintance named Olivier, whom I knew from my student days in the French house at Bloomington, Indiana. He had been living in Paris when I first arrived, and he had been very hospitable to me. He invited me over to dinner one night and we had a nice chat. Shortly after that, he got a job in Lyons and told me to call him up if I ever got down there. I took that as a standing invitation.

Olivier’s cordiality had surprised me a bit. My first semester at the French House, he had been our resident assistant, a job for a more responsible graduate student who acted a bit like a chaperone. Since most of the people in the French House were juniors or seniors, fairly intellectual students, and rarely prone to the binge drinking one found in a lot of undergraduate dorms, this was a kind of sinecure for Olivier. He pretty much left us alone and I never even thought he knew I existed. Or if he was aware of me, I thought he disdained me because of an incident I participated in.

Olivier was an opinionated and lugubrious type. If he participated in discussions at the French-speaking table at the dorm cafeteria, he usually made some pronouncement or caustic remark-usually about crass Americans and our lack of culture. He was majoring in business. Olivier cut an imposing figure–he was tall, thin, and had a shock of thick unruly hair. Unfortunately he wore one of those beards without a moustache, the kind that just follows your jaw line. He looked a bit like a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Big Bird.

No one hated Olivier. As I said, he left most people alone. One night however, we played a prank on him. On sleepless nights, I used to sneak into the boiler room, flip on the light switch, and watch the myriads of cockroaches scurry into the nooks and crannies. Sometimes, if I were feeling mean, I’d take a broom with me and see how many I could smash to a pulp. One time, I discovered a big box full of Christmas decorations. On the night of our prank, I mentioned the box to the artsy-campy clique I used to hang around with. Someone seized upon the idea of decorating the door to Olivier’s room with the contents. There was nothing mean in this. It was a practical joke.

We got the box and crept down the hall to Olivier’s door. We encircled the doorframe with a string of blinking lights, draped a fake pine garland over the lintel, and stuck a tin foil and red and green paper cut out of Santa Claus on the door. We knocked on the door and then all ran back to our rooms.

Suddenly we heard a huge uproar in the hall. I cracked open my door to see what it was. Olivier was standing in the hall in his pajamas. He spat out curses as he violently ripped the decorations from his door.

“Goddamn it!” he yelled. “Why do you do this to me? I know. It is because I am the goddamned foreigner. Well, I hate you all, too!!”

We were all surprised at the vehemence with which Olivier reacted. After that, it became kind of a joke among our clique. We used to walk around saying, “Chust beecuz I am zee goddam foureeener!” Olivier moved out of the dorm at the end of the semester and then he moved back to Paris. My friend Thom Klem, who didn’t live in the French house, remained friends with him and then corresponded with him after Olivier returned to France. Thom had sent a letter of introduction to Olivier and that was why he had acted so nice when I got to Paris.

Now when Inge, Chris and I arrived in Lyons, it was already dark and I told them not to worry. I’d call Olivier. He had told me to call when I got to Lyons, and I was sure he would put us up. The phone rang several times. Finally Olivier answered. When I told him who it was, there was a silence.

“You know, Kurt. In France it is very rude to call people after 10:00 p.m. Most people go to bed very early.

I apologized profusely and felt kind of blind-sided. I thought he would have invited us to stay. I stammered and asked if he knew of any pensions or hostels where we could stay. I think he might have given us a number and then just hung up.

I cannot remember where we ended up staying. I believe we had to split up, Inge going to a pension and me and Chris maybe even staying up all night talking in a doorway by the side of the road. In the morning we reassembled, and fortunately the second day turned out rather nicely. We found a Frenchman whose hospitality was diametrically opposed to Olivier’s. And fortunately, it is on that behavior and not Olivier’s that I base my opinion of the French, which is very fond indeed. But I’ll save that story for my next entry.

Erik Satie. Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois

In an earlier entry about Satie, I described how he gave humorous, and even surrealistic titles to his works. Today’s, Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois for example, means “Sketches and flirtations of a big, wooden simpleton.” When you hear the piece which starts out with a little oom pah-pah waltz, it instantly evokes a big, dumb ox or rube from the country lumbering along a French boulevard. Yet this section has a certain sweetness to it that makes you instantly feel a certain fondness for the subject.

The second movement in this short piece has a bit of discordance to it, which might evoke a bittersweet feeling about the simpleton’s lot. The last section is a meticulous anti-waltz where the rhythm goes pah pah oom instead of oom pah pah. The composer’s execution of the piece matches perfectly the playfulness of the title.

If you ever feel yourself completely flummoxed by life or like all your best laid plans go completely wrong for some reason, well this is the perfect music to put on.

Satie Biography

Innocent Abroad, in which I visit Cannes in 1977

Fortunately for me, I wrote lots of letters during my first trip to France as a student in 1977, and some of the recipients returned them to me. They jog my memory and today remind me that after just one day in the quaint, costal town of St. Raphael, I took a local train to the city of Cannes. These letters also make me cringe at what an affected and “precious” person I once was.

Cannes struck my as a strange city and I didn’t like it all that much. Its fame lies in the movie festival, which takes place in May. In February, when I visited, it seemed pretty dead, although the climate was pretty warm.

Parts of the city were pretty. For example, the hill on which Notre Dame de l’Esperance stands really amazed me. The church has a Roman tower on one side and a rather interesting museum on the other. Below the church ran a maze of pathways and stairs, which led down, past and through villas, protected from the sun by their closeness to one another. It was so shady that green moss grew everywhere.

The museum beside the church was called the Musee de la Cestre, turned out to be a nice find. It was founded by a Dutchman in 1874 and housed a collection of artifacts from exotic and popular cultures that he had collected on his voyages. Inside, clean but very old glass cases displayed Oceanic, Chinese, Tibetan, Asian, Phoenician, Peruvian, Egyptian, Aboriginal, and Japanese items, some of which were quite ancient. There was an impressive collection of Phoenician tablets–written in Sumerian–that someone had dated 2000 B.C. The cases also contained several beautiful, Egyptian alabaster vases, visceral urns, and pots. Rome was represented by its glassware, Peru by its pottery dating from 800 A.D., China by its dishes, vases, and urns. The smallness of the museum made it all the more impressive considering the wealth of items it contained. It advertised itself as being a “Musee des Beaux Arts” but one dedicated more to “humanistic ends.”

What struck me was the naivete of the museum. It reminded me of a little museum that had once occupied an old house in my home town–full of antiques and curios that a rich dabbler had found interesting. I particularly liked the inscriptions that kept me quite entertained. One, which described a Tibetan flute, made from a human femur bordered on the poetic:

“One is made from a human femur which came from the body of a venerable personage, which confers upon it a religious value that is particularly emotive.”

This quote sort of summed up the tone of the entire museum. The collector tried to explain things. It was an altogether different experience at the time from the Louvre, where there were no such friendly explanations, and the size of the collection and the grandeur of the building dwarfed you. This little museum seemed all that a museum should be–a place where you can go to reflect on the wonder of people’s need to make things, beautiful things at that.

Besides this one nice refuge, the rest of Cannes seemed garish with its huge hotels everywhere that exploited the beach. Almost all of them looked the same, were high priced, and had casinos. However, between the beach and the hotels lay a beautiful boulevard whose median was planted with palm and cypress trees and pansies.

I would have high-tailed it out of Cannes earlier, thinking Nice might be nicer, but while reading the paper one day I noticed that Manitas de Plata, a Flamenco guitar player, was playing at the Casino Municipale on Friday night. I decided I couldn’t miss that. The semester before, my friend Thom Klem and I had discovered this guitarist on one of our forays into “international” music. Thom had bought one of his records and we used to sit up late drinking wine and talk about this soulful music, rapt in wonder at the machine-gun like rhythm pounded out by the heels of the dancers.

The night of the concert, I went along to the Municipale Casino, which dated from the turn of the century and whose theatre resembled the classic old opera houses. It had about seven stories of box seats that ran along three walls and whose railings were ornate, hand carved and painted gold. The boxes were plush and hung with curtains and we sat on individual ornate sitting-room chairs, not fixed ones. The acoustics were good and Manitas de Plata (which means little hands of silver) was superb. On stage with him were his brother and brother in law, all thin, dark and proud men dressed in black tight trousers, white shirts and black leather vests.

After the concert, I strolled around the casino and toyed with the idea of gambling a little. The place had two separate sections, one for the hoi-polloi like myself and one for the high rollers. The posh crowd would stroll in dress in black tie and tails and disappear behind a grand old door, through which I once caught a glimpse of a very grand room with a chandelier. The small fish were dressed like any middle-class French person of the day. They stood in an anteroom staring at a gaming table on which sat what looked like a roulette wheel with a gland case. It was about twice the size of roulette wheels in the movies, and the croupier used a ball about the size of a tennis ball. The wheel did not spin–instead the croupier threw a ball around its inner perimeter and it would fall into a black or red colored slot.

I thought, “what the heck” and went over and bought about $20 worth of chips. I watched to see if I could pick up any betting tips from my fellow roues, and decided to match the bets of a guy who seemed to be doing all right. In a few throws I had doubled my money. I felt elated-insulin pumped through my body, and I became convinced I could win. So I continued to bet, and in a few more throws, I was broke. But I still wanted to play. Fortunately, some reasonable part of my brain kicked in, but I remember having the feeling that one part of me actually had to forcibly drag the other out. It was that addicting! James Bond made it look so easy. But what was interesting was that the summer before, I had taken a class in probability where I learned how to calculate the odds of such games of chance. Our professor showed us that the ways the games are set up, the odds always favor the casinos. Otherwise they would not be in business. Yet despite that, a part of me wanted to go back and try it again. That put me right off gambling and except for a lottery ticket about once a year, I never indulge.

Erik Satie. Avant-dernières pensées

For today’s piece, I have chosen Satie’s Avant-dernières pensées. This, like most of his other works, is for solo piano. The title is a play on words. “Dernières pensées” would be something like “after thoughts.” “Avant,” means “before.” So this work, which is a series of three short little musical reflections, means “Before/After-Thoughts.”

Written in 1915, they are a bit more serious than many of his other works, perhaps reflecting his disgust with World War I in which he fought briefly. The three sub-pieces are dedicated to his contemporary composers-Debussy, Dukas and Roussel. Together they form a perfect piece to listen to when taking a walk through the back streets of one’s memories, a I will now do.

A Walk on the Wild French Riviera

On the 31st of January 1977, after having stayed a mere two weeks in Paris, I left that city by train, bound for the south. You’ll never guess why. It was because of Simone de Beauvoir. Before I had left for France, my friend Thom Klem gave me the first volume of her autobiography, “The Force Of Circumstances” (La Force de L’Age). Beauvoir was the life-long confidant of the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and in her writing, she painted a picture of a purely open and equal relationship between two great minds. That became my ideal of relationships for years, which, like all perfectionist notions, eventually did more damage than good.

In Paris I had become close to a circle of Americans who’d graciously introduced me to the city. One of them, Catherine, was the daughter of an American who’d married a French while in France during World War II. As the baby of her family, and only daughter, she was a bit spoiled and threw a good tantrum from time to time.

Catherine dated a garrulous American guy. They both came from rather wealthy families. They didn’t have to pay for their trip abroad, as I had done after spending every summer since high school working in a factory. By the time I left for the South, they were already making wedding plans.

Because I had begun to adopt Beauvoir’s anti-bourgeois notions, Catherine’s relationship started to sicken me. Near the end, we got into an argument over Beauvoir. Her mother had told her that Beauvoir used to procure a constant supply of young girls for Sartre from among her students when she taught at the Sorbonne. I was outraged. This sounded like a bourgeois lie designed to discredit the intellectual and moral authority of the Left. It wasn’t until about 20 years later that I read that in some later biography of Beauvoir that the “rumor” had been true–Beauvoir even admitted it. It still strikes me odd, however, that one of the foremost feminists of ever, really, could have done that. And since I was so arrogant in my youthful attitudes, that led to my rupture with Catherine and her circle.

So I left Paris under somewhat inauspicious circumstances. I boarded a train one night at the Gare d’Austerlitz and made my way down the narrow corridor with my huge suitcase to my compartment. It was empty and I rejoiced in my solitude. I had come down with a bad cold and had one of those sore throats that feels like a knife sticking in the back of your throat. On top of that, I had a bad, hacking cough. I looked forward to a quite night’s sleep.

After I had snuggled up to against the wall of the train, the door to the compartment slid open and a whole family from the south of France piled in. Grandpa wore the traditional blue of a working man with a little “casquette” hat. Off his mouth hung a Gitanes, “Mais” cigarette, a harsh unfiltered cigarette rolled in corn-based paper (for added flavor, I guess). He tipped his hat as he walked in and sat down. His wife followed, with her babushka scarf over her head, carrying a picnic basket. I believe another husband and wife, the son and daughter-in-law, then entered with two pre-teen kids. They were nice enough, though they spoke in a rapid, southern dialect that I could not follow.

After we got moving, they broke out the picnic basket that they had provisioned with salami, bread, cheese, grapes and oranges and invited me to partake. The only bad thing about the their presence was the old guy’s cigarettes, which he proceeded to smoke the entire trip. He meant no harm. In fact, as a gesture of kindness, before he lit up, he’d always offer me the pack and say “T’en veut?” to which I’d croak out, “Non, merci,” pointing to my throat, “J’ai mal a la gorge.” He never took the hint and removed himself to the hall the entire trip. So by the time we awoke the next morning, I felt even worse.

But then I looked out the window and the view made the 11-hour ride in an eight-person train compartment smelling shoeless feet, the strong black tobacco, and paté worth it. When I first caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean, from the train at Toulon, my heart leapt with joy. In the predawn hours, the sea was quite beautiful: a mist hung over the surface, which was pierced by huge, craggy rock formations that jutted up. White stucco houses with red tile roofs studded the hillside as it ran down to the shore.

After a while, as the sun rose, the mountains started to appear. Some were of granite with white craggy faces; others of a very red rock. Both were beautifully festooned with garlands of pine trees. Our train wandered between these two races of giants and through valleys with ancient farms composed of maybe three buildings constructed god knows how long ago with motley colored stones. The valleys were just waking up, and over many hung a curtain of mist, with parts of their vineyards exposed.

As we approached St Raphael, we lost the sea, but we were compensated for the loss by the site of the hills covered with a profusion of gnarled olives and mimosa trees. I hadn’t known this, but the mimosa has an incredibly yellow-almost sulfur-flower. The flowers are composite, made up of hundreds of individual florets, about the size of chamomile. These clumps of yellow blanket the tops of the trees, so that the hill I saw looked as if someone had sifted sulfur down on top of them.

We passed Frejus–an ancient Phoenician village–and landed about two minutes later in St. Raphael. I took the first hotel I could find–a whopping 50 francs (about 10 dollars at the time)–and crashed into one surely what was one of the most comfortable beds I’ve been in for weeks. I slept for four hours, showered, and decided to take a walk, in spite of the fact that I had a pretty bad sore throat. I walked up to Fréjus–sort of well known for the Roman ruins and a 12th century church and cloisters. However, when I got there, I felt pretty weak, since I hadn’t eaten since the night before, so I stopped at a café and wolfed down two croissants and an espresso. The café was outside the gates to the ruins. I was surprised to find that the man behind the bar didn’t have an espresso machine and instead made the coffee with instant Nescafé.

I got into a small discussion with the man behind the bar about visiting the ruins. He advised against it without a guide, since there were muggers about. I decided that, since my throat was in pretty bad shape, and since I felt pretty nauseous, I had better head back to St. Raphael. On the way back, I saw the ruins of what was once a Roman aqueduct and a huge gateway. Both were made out of a brick that been fashioned out of the red, clayey earth. They had now taken on the warm dullness of worn terra cotta.

The appearance of the ruins surprised me. They sat in the midst of pretty unkempt fields that were bordered by equally seedy-looking dirt road. I thought it a bit disrespectful that they weren’t in the middle of well manicured, picturesque parks.

At a news agent on the way back to my hotel, I saw some post cards of Frejus and realized that I had missed a huge mosaic and a nice stadium and amphitheater. I would have gone back the next day, but a thing happened which made me decide to leave this area and I had to catch the train at 8:23 this morning. I also missed out on the St Raphael church, which my guidebook described as having many Byzantine elements in it.

For dinner, I went to the local market and picked up some paté made with morel mushrooms, some wine, bread, and a half kilo of oranges. When I got back to my room, I sliced into one of the oranges and had a start: the flesh was a purplish color. I opened another and another. They were all the same. It seemed like some kind of bad omen, so I threw them out. Much later, I learned that they were “blood oranges,” and were quite prized as being especially sweet and juicy.

After dinner, I went out to look for a little cinema club, which for one night was showing a film by Visconti. I missed the address–or actually read the address of the club which was sponsoring it instead of where it was actually being shown–and found myself on the other side of the railroad tracks. After walking for not more than five minutes, I was accosted by a young north African man about my age on a mobillette. He asked if I was hunting for something. I told him that I was going to Rue Victor Hugo. “Ah,” he said, and told me to go around the corner to my right. He said he would meet me at the next block to the south since the road down which I had to walk was one way. I turned the corner and eventually caught up to him. He started asking me where I wanted to go, and I told him #7 Rue Victor Hugo. He then said that if I needed a place to sleep, I could come and sleep with him. For some reason, I didn’t catch on right away. Perhaps it was due to his accent, but I didn’t comprehend, or perhaps I did, but didn’t want to believe that I was being propositioned. So I told him that I already had a room, but then he offered to come home with me.

For some reason, things didn’t quite click correctly in my mind, for when he mentioned something about “pédé” all I could say was ” pédé?” “Pédé?” ” Qu’est-ce que ca veut dire? Je ne comprends pas.” Then, once again, he pointed to the place where he was staying and asked me if I wanted to come and stay with him.” Finally, the light went on.

“Ah,” I said. “Oh,” I said. “Non, merci,” I said. “Ca va pa. Au revoir, Monsieur.” And we parted. I think I left him a little bewildered, or at least he looked so. Though at university I had many friends who were gay, being all alone in France and having that happen spooked me and so I decided to leave the next morning for Cannes.

Looking back at my letters from that time period, it wasn’t the man’s homosexuality that bothered me, I’m ashamed to say. When I had been in Paris, the group of Americans who hung around Catherine’s, used to warn me about “Arabs.” The word for them had taken on almost same derogatory content as “blacks,” in the States. I had allowed myself to fall prey to this same racist notion, though several years later I ended up going to Algeria to teach. (But that is a later story.)

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