Lucking Out in Tunisia

Tunisia map 2When I reserved a week at a spa hotel on the island of Djerba a week ago, I wasn’t expecting to be so lucky. The 4-star ElMouadi, which covers 33 hectares (about 82 acres), is constructed in “Menzel” style–those low white dwellings so typical of the farms on the island. Palm trees are planted everywhere, and there is more than a kilometer of private beaches with free umbrellas and deck chairs, as well as three swimming pools (two of which are salt water).

Opting for an all-inclusive package, I was pleased to discover it includes not only air travel from Paris, transfers to and from the Djerba-Zarsis Airport, single room and full-board (3 meals a day, plus snacks, and all you can eat and drink), and various sport activities, but also 3 days of spa treatments in the hotel’s lovely Thalasso Center. IMG_20190924_104012All for 600 euros, which I think is a very good price. Going to a spa hotel in France would have been much more expensive, and I wouldn’t have had the warm weather (about 30 degrees C. or 86 degrees F.) I’m having here.


What I particularly appreciate, though, and this is another reason I think I’ve “lucked out”, is my room. Of course, as often happens, I had to pay a supplement for a single room, but this time it’s a three-storied double-room in a Menzel bungalow. It’s like a little town-house all to myself : entry way, mini bar and bathroom on the ground floor, huge bedroom with satelite TV on the 1st floor, and private roof-top terrace on the 2nd floor. It’s just perfect for my own “writer’s retreat”, since I plan to get back to writing the novel I’m working on, that is if I don’t fall asleep after going to the spa and swimming in the sea IMG_20190924_090201and swimming pool!

I know some people out there would criticize the size of the hotel and how “touristy” it is. Most of the 1000+ guests are Europeans–Italians, Germans, French and Russian–but there are also some Tunisian families. The grounds are so vast and the activities so diverse that you don’t really feel the large number of guests. The staff members, of course, are all Tunisian, and they couldn’t be more friendly. (I remember this from two previous trips to Tunisia.) I really feel as if they’re glad we’re here, helping the economy.

Speaking of the economy, I was told something very interesting yesterday by the driver who brought me to my hotel. Thirty-two and still living with his parents because he can’t afford to live elsewhere, he said that Ben Ali, the former president who died recently in Saudia Arabia, was really appreciated by the “common people” (his words) such as himself. He said that it’s almost impossible for them to buy a house or a car these days since the “Revolution” (the so-called Arab Spring) . Under Ben Ali, they received lots of subsidies, etc. We in the West. of course, think of Ben Ali as a corrupt autocrat, but like other powerful men, I guess he curried favor among the people and was appreciated by a certain segment of the population, especially those in rural areas.

IMG_20190924_090149I’m probably the only person here on holiday on their own, but  I don’t feel lonely. It’s fun and good for the moral that the young waiters flirt with me, and I enjoy talking with the other friendly members of the staff and some of the guests. I haven’t told anyone here it’s my birthday today, but I’m very glad I came and am having my own little celebration of life and fellow-feeling.






Published in: on September 24, 2019 at 7:27 am  Leave a Comment  

Yellow Vests, Disgruntled Students, and a Shooting in Strasbourg

When Macron was elected,  many left-leaning people said there would be trouble on the streets. And now, just before Christmas, there have been demonstrations, some of them violent, by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) and high school students.
Macron is  perceived by many as being arrogant and out of touch with “average” people.
What do I think? There are indeed economic inequalities in France. There’s also a tradition of taking to the streets. But there are also violent elements in the population who take advantage of demonstrations to cause havoc. Unfortunately, I believe a lot of them are encouraged by the Far Right (LePen) and the Far Left (Melanchon), who want the present government to fall. I’m personally definitely against violence, esp. in cases like this. It’s not the way to have one’s grievances met.
Macron is in a very difficult position to say the least. He’s called in for consultation all sorts of groups, but the Gilets Jaunes don’t really have any leaders or spokespeople. He’s also made some economic concessions, but some question where the money is going to come from. Others says it’s too little, too late.
As for high school students, they are upset about changes in their scholastic programs and in the baccalaureate. I read about these changes and sympathize with their concerns. Among other things, it may mean that their local high school won’t offer the courses they need to get their “bac”and they might have to travel to another high school miles away to take the courses they need.
One of my sons teaches in a French middle school. The government is suppressing 2600 teaching positions in the secondary system even though there’s a great increase in students entering middle school and high school. The government wants to put more money into elementary education. All very good, but not at the expense of secondary schools.
 And a few days ago, there was a terrorist attack at the Christmas Market in Strasbourg–another reminder that France is a target for many radicalized groups and individuals.
It’s just so sad. The holiday season is upon us, and over the last year or so we were starting to live ordinary lives again. The violence of some of the demonstrations and  shootings like the one in Strasbourg are not only bad for French tourism and the economy. They also affect our morale and our  sense of fellow-feeling.
Published in: on December 14, 2018 at 6:31 am  Comments (1)  

Return to Paris

This is an epilogue to my previous post about retiring half of the year to Berkeley, California.grandma and computer

I’m now back permanently in Paris, although I expect I’ll return to Berkeley from time to time during the summers. Even though I felt very comfortable living in California after many years of living abroad, there was something missing, something that drew me back to my adopted country, France.

What was it? It certainly wasn’t the grey and dismal skies of Paris winters. And, it wasn’t the cultural life of the French capital and the possibility of traveling easily throughout Europe, although I greatly enjoy these opportunities and take advantage of them whenever I can. Nor was it the various clubs and associations I belong to in Paris or the group of old and new friends I have made here over several decades.

No, it was something else, something I never really understood until I experienced it personally. I have come back because I very much missed my four grandchildren, aged 1 ½ to 7. Friends are mobile. Friends understand if you travel far and wide or live in another country. Grandchildren don’t always.grandma shopping

I decided that now was the time to see my two granddaughters and my two grandsons on a weekly basis, to help care for them when my sons and daughters-in-law need me to, to play and bond with them as often as possible. When I was in California, we spoke on the phone and Skyped, of course, but nothing really replaces proximity and physical contact. Besides, and other grandparents have confirmed this, I reasoned that when they are older, their main centers of interest will be their friends, their sports and activities, their play stations. Now is the time to be with them.

So, even though I haven’t baked in years, I’m now making brownies and cornbread; I’m playing dominoes and “teacher”; I’m taking them to the park and reading them bedtime stories. grandma telling stories Not having had a role model for this-–my mother’s mother, my only grandparent, was never present for my brother and me—I’m learning as I go. It’s sometimes hard, but fun, and I’m very much enjoying it.

Although they all prefer to speak French with me at the moment, I’ve started giving English lessons to my eldest granddaughter and a little friend of hers, and I hope to pursue this with the other grandchildren in the near future.  I also try to share with them aspects of my American culture and my love of travel.

I am the mother of three sons, so caring for my two little grandsons brings back memories of how my sons were at their ages. Dealing with my two granddaughters, however, is a completely new experience. Their French mothers are bright and independent young women and are bringing up their daughters to be so, too.  I’m realizing more and more how much these little girls will have the world in the palms of their hands as they grow into mature human beings. They’re loquacious, playful, athletic, intelligent, and hard-working in school; they have minds of their own but are also thoughtful towards their little brothers and their friends. They’re gorgeous, too, with beautiful blond hair and long dark eyelashes that I’m terribly jealous of!

I never thought I’d want to be called Grandma. To my mind, it’s an old-fashioned and “unsophisticated” name. But I love the way my grandchildren call me “GrandeMa” with their French accents. In our family, it’s unique, too. They have other grand-mères (their mothers’ mothers and my ex-husband’s second wife) but they only have one GrandeMa, whom I’m very proud to be.

Published in: on December 20, 2017 at 3:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Retiring to a U.S. University Town: Berkeley, California

When I retired from teaching for the French Education Nationale ten years ago, I was determined to keep busy and to have an active retirement. My sons were grown and married but had no children yet. So I decided I’d go around the world for six months. Thanks to my special Air France plane ticket, I traveled to Asia, Central America and South America. Following my trip and after a few months back in France, I contacted AGIR, a French NGO that sends retired professional people abroad as volunteers on short-term missions. Paying for my transportation and my living expenses, they sent me to China, where I replaced an English teacher at the French Lycée of Shanghai for six months.

On my way back to Paris from China, I visited friends in San Francisco, which I still consider my “home town,” even though I no longer have any family there. After all my traveling, it felt good to be back in California and to reconnect with my American roots and mother tongue. In fact, it felt so good I decided to stay for several months and to see what it was like living in the U.S. again after some 40+ years in France. These several months turned into seven years of spending part of the year in Paris and part of the year in my home state.

Because I couldn’t find affordable short-term rentals in San Francisco itself, a friend suggested I look for a place in Berkeley, where, because of the student population, there’s more real estate turnover. So Berkeley was where I ended up, and, as it turned out, it was the perfect solution for me since it’s a university town with a diverse population of students, young professionals and retirees and a lot going on.ucberkeley-campus-ggbridge-400x265

Being a “joiner” and never one to sit at home twiddling my thumbs for very long, I joined various groups and associations. The first organization I joined was OLLI Berkeley, which is one of 119 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation on university and college campuses. In addition to being attracted to the workshops and courses OLLI Berkeley offers, the way it describes itself also appealed to me: an ongoing learning community of peers; an interdisciplinary forum for Berkeley faculty; and an intellectual and cultural connection to the university and the city of Berkeley. ( By way of example, my first half-year in Berkeley, I took a course on Russian literature, attended a story-telling workshop and sang my heart out in The Joy of Singing. I also joined an OLLI-sponsored book club and, as an OLLI member, audited a class on American literature at the University.

During those first few months, I also took intermediate tennis classes through the City of Berkeley’s Parks and Recreation Department and met several women of my age with whom I started playing tennis on a regular basis. To this day, I still play with them on public courts whenever I’m in Berkeley on a Friday. I also joined the YMCA and used their gym and swimming pool.

Being a frustrated journalist at heart, I discovered that the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism on campus hosts bi-monthly talks by journalists–many of them graduates of the University–that are open to the public.  I very much enjoyed hearing representatives of the press and the media speak to us, and every time I now hear Tamara Keith report from the White House on NPR I think to myself : “I heard her speak at the Berkeley JS soon after she graduated.”

Another organization I joined in the Berkeley area is Stagebridge, the nation’s oldest senior performing arts company, which is in Oakland. I first took courses in storytelling and was lucky to later participate in storytelling events on stage in Oakland and Berkeley and in senior centers around the Bay Area. After that, I started taking courses in playwriting, acting, and directing. Over the past seven years, I have written many 10-minute plays, as well as four full-length ones. Scenes from several of my plays were performed by professional actors in California, and I have also had readings of my plays in Paris. As for acting, I have taken classes in basic acting and the Uta Hagan method. One of the highlights of my acting experience at Stagebridge was when I played the role of Mrs. Roby (I’m dressed in white in the photo) in a performance of “Xingu”, a short story by Edith Wharton adapted to the stage by the San Francisco troupe Word for Word. An actor/acting teacher from the troupe directed us, and some people have said it was one of Stagebridge’s most memorable productions.Xingu 1

I could go on and on about all the activities available in Berkeley—going to stage performances and taking classes at Berkeley Rep, the Aurora and Cal Shakespeare theaters, participating in two playreading groups, hiking with a local Sierra Club, having dinners with my New Yorker discussion group, attending meetings and events of Les Amis de la Culture Francaise, seeing old movies at the Pacific Film Archives and new ones at local cinemas, auditing classes at the University, volunteering in English literacy, reading and writing programs in local schools, attending a Unitarian church, and so forth. Suffice it to say that retiring to a university town in the U.S., even if it is only for part of the year, has been, insofar as I am concerned, a real source of personal épanouissement.

Published in: on December 4, 2017 at 1:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Being a Dual-Citizen

The United States is my “birth country”, and I am an American citizen. When I married a French husband back in the early 1970s, I also became French –”automatically”, as they said back then. (You now have to wait five years and apply). Although the Frenchman and I later divorced, I still remained French.

Being what you call a dual citizen, a citizen of two countries. I vote in both the U.S. and France; and I possess two passports. I also have a French identity card, which, by the way, is all I need to travel within the European Union, as well as certain other countries, such as Switzerland, Malta, Turkey, Slovenia, Cyprus, Iceland, etc. With my French passport I can even travel, legally and on my own, to Cuba!

I also pay income taxes in both countries, although, admittedly I pay very few in the U.S. because I have no assets in the country and only do the odd consulting job there.  Being a retired, tenured educator of the French Ministry of Education,  with 35 years of service, I receive a pension from the French government and have French medical coverage for life. I do not receive any American Social Security or Medicare benefits because I have lived all my adult life in France and haven’t accumulated enough quarters.

I feel lucky that the U.S. and France have agreements that allow dual citizenship; some countries do not. I also feel lucky that when I am in the U.S. I am considered an American and when in France, I am considered French, although, admittedly, “of American origin.” This means that I can live and work in either country and come and go as I please without worrying about visas, residency cards or work papers.

Sometimes I have heard people in both countries complain about dual-citizenship. In the U.S., they ask, “How can you be a good U.S.citizen if you live abroad?” In France, where the extreme right-wing proclaims “France for the French” and denounces immigration, certain people complain about the “foreign origins” of some of its electorate.

I do not agree with these complaints. Speaking about my own situation, I believe that having dual citizenship has made me a very conscientious and thoughtful citizen, both in my birth country and in my adopted country. Living outside the U.S. has given be a broad outlook on the political situation there and an appreciation of what I would like to defend or see changed. In addition, contrary to many home-based Americans, I never abstain from voting in presidential and legislative elections! As an American citizen, I feel it is my obligation to vote; I do this by registering in my last place of residence in the U.S. (California) and sending in an absentee ballot. Wishing to be kept up-to-date on my civic rights, I joined AARO ( Association of American Residents Overseas), a Paris-based association defending U.S. citizens living abroad. I also participate in the activities of Democrats Abroad (France).

I believe that because I live permanently in France and am a citizen of this country, I also have an obligation to vote in French elections. As I feel I am doing when I vote in the U.S., I want to exercise my democratic right to share in the decisions that are made and to express my opinion about what should be defended or changed. Living in the Paris area for the past 40 years, I am usually in town when the two rounds of elections occur; when I’m not, I either vote by correspondence or have somebody vote for me by proxy. I have always been impressed at how seriously French voters take the election process. Indeed, the abstention rate is much lower than in the U.S.; and, unlike American elections, which are held on a work day, French elections take place on Sundays so that a maximum number of people can vote. French election campaigns can be as tough or as tedious as in the U.S., but I have always found there is a certain degree of solemnity about the actual voting on election day. For example, it is usually very quiet at the voting place. Going to vote is in event,  and I’ve noticed that many French people actually get all dressed up in their “Sunday best” when they go to cast their ballot!

Although I am a dual-citizen and bilingual in English and French, while they were growing up, I made a big effort to transmit my American culture and “roots” to my three sons, who were born in France but raised bilingual and bi-cultural. As soon as they were born, I registered them right away as American citizens at the U.S. Consulate in Paris and obtained U.S. passports for them. I felt then, as I still do today, that having U.S. citizenship would attach them in many ways to the heritage of their American mother. Being a teacher and later a professor, I was lucky enough to have the summers off and was able to take them on trips to the U.S. to visit family and friends. With their own U.S. passports, I reckoned that should someday they want to live, study or work in the U.S., they could enter the country without any problems. (As it turned out, my youngest son lived with me in the U.S. for several months when he was 11 and then again at age 16; and my eldest son has lived and worked there for the past five years.)

Obtaining U.S. citizenship for the next generation has not been so easy. Because my sons haven’t lived in the U.S. for a total of five years (of which two years must be after reaching age 14) they cannot automatically transmit their U.S. citizenship to their children as I could. When my first grandchild was born, my middle son really wanted dual-citizenship for his daughter, and I was determined to help him.

A fellow member of AAWE (Association of American Wives of Europeans) who happens to be an international lawyer told me about the Child Citizenship Act of 2000.  Under this act, the child of a U.S. citizen can apply for an immigrant visa to the U.S.and obtain U.S. citizenship this way. My son first had to get a French passport for his daughter (who was only a year old at the time) and then apply for the visa at the U.S. consulate in Paris. Several months later, after completing a lot of paperwork, making several trips to the Consulate and taking the baby for a Consulate-accredited medical visit, my son learned that she had been granted the visa. My son and granddaughter then traveled to the U.S., and she became a naturalized U.S. citizen upon arrival on U.S.soil. Although they have since returned to France to live, my granddaughter now has a U.S. passport; and my son intends to bring her up bicultural and bilingual, just as I did with him.

Obtaining an immigration visa for the child of my youngest son and his French partner will probably prove to be much more complicated.. The U.S. Consulate in Paris can no longer handle the initial paperwork; all applications now have to go through a Homeland Security office in Chicago. Despite the difficulties, however, my youngest son, like his older brother, intends to go through the procedure. He would really like his child and any other children to come to have U.S. citizenship in addition to their French nationality.

As you can probably tell, my sons and I truly believe that, handled right, you really CAN be a good citizen of two countries!

Published in: on July 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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Gertrude Stein Mania in San Francisco

Gertrude Stein has hit San Francisco like a storm, and the same mania will probably soon affect Paris, New York and Washington D.C. as well.

Why all the fuss? Well, first because of the blockbuster exhibit, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which is due to close September 6 and travel to the Grand Palais in Paris (Oct 3, 2011 to Jan 16, 2012) and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Feb 21–Jun 3, 2012). Reuniting the amazing collections of Gertrude,  her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, the exhibit displays some 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and illustrated books,  including approximately 40 works by Picasso and 60 by Matisse, as well as works by Bonnard, Cézanne, Gris, Laurencin, Picabia, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vallotton. In addition to the exhibit, the SFMOMA and, indeed, the whole Yerba Buena neighborhood have also been hosting a whole slew of film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, cultural programs and performances related to Gertrude and her entourage.

Just a few blocks away from the SFMOMA, at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum, the exhibit “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories”, also closing September 6, concentrates more on Gertrude’s life and legacy, exploring her identities as a literary pioneer, a modernist, an expatriate in Paris and the partner of Alice B. Toklas, a celebrity and a muse to artists. Jointly organized with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, to which it will travel after San Francisco (October 14, 2011 – January 22, 2012),the exhibition features some 100 artifacts and artworks, as well as manuscripts, letters, journals and personal belongings. Also included are film footage from Gertrude’s operas and ballets and a documentary film about Alice’s and her life during wartime. Like the SFMOMA, the Contemporary Jewish Museum has also been hosting numerous discussions, events and programs, some of them related to Gertrude’s Jewish and lesbian identities and associations.

In addition to visiting both of these exhibits, I have attended several of the San Francisco events related to Gertrude Stein. One I particularly enjoyed was at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Entitled “Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and their Circle”, it was a one-woman show with Laura Sheppard, who read from the manuscript of Harriet L. Levy, a San Francisco writer and theater critic who moved to Paris in 1907 with her friend Alice B. Toklas. The show was followed by a lively panel discussion about Gertrude’s Jewishness and her puzzling relationship with Bernard Fay, a gay, anti-Semitic, French academic with ties to the Vichy government who ensured Alice’s and Gertrude’s protection in France during World War II and who was later imprisoned for having persecuted French Freemasons.

During this discussion, much to my amaze, I learned that Gertrude translated a book of Petain’s speeches into English, wrote the Nobel Committee recommending Hitler for the Peace Prize, supported Franco, and hated FDR. And I later read that Alice B. Toklas, following Gertrude’s death, helped finance Fay escape from Fresnes prison outside Paris by selling one or more works on paper by Picasso.

Of course, I loved the art exhibits and seeing all the artifacts, but as a history buff and an author of two books dealing with World War II, Gertrude and Alice’s “murky” past during the war and their association with GI’s following the liberation of France fascinates me. Consequently, I have started doing some research on these subjects, both by searching the Internet and by buying books or taking them out of the Berkeley Public Library whenever they are available—this being rare these days, given the Gertrude Stein mania existing in the area!

I have even written a playlet, a sort of one-woman show (which I performed in my storytelling class at Stagebridge last week) based on a 1945 Life article I quoted in my book French War Brides in America when it was published in 2004.  The story features an elderly, but still feisty,  Gertrude admonishing an audience of GI’s at the American Red Cross Center in Paris in the spring of 1945—just a year before her death from cancer at the American Hospital. Watch for it soon on my website:

I love the fact that Gertrude shared my love of Paris and also hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area (she grew up in Oakland), where she is the topic these days of  a lot of lively conversation at dinner parties, owing to these exhibits and to  “Midnight in Paris.¨  But she is certainly a much more complex and puzzling character than the funny and lovable American expatriate that Woody Allen portrayed in his film!

Claudine LeMoal’s “Children of Breiz”

Being a dual American-French citizen, I have been sharing my time for the past two years between Paris and Berkeley, California. As a consequence of this transcontinental life, I have come into contact with both the American community in Paris and the French community in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In both places, I have met some very interesting people with whom I seem to have a lot in common. One of these is Claudine LeMoal.

Claudine between daughters

In many ways, Claudine and I are “mirror images” of each other. Born in Strasbourg in eastern France, Claudine moved permanently to the U.S. with her mother and G.I. stepfather in 1962, the same year that my parents and I left San Francisco and moved to France. Although I only stayed for three years that time round (my father’s position at the U.S. Embassy in Paris coming to an end),  I later returned on my own and eventually married a Frenchman, raised a family, studied at the Sorbonne, and taught English and American civilization for many years in the French educational system. As for Claudine, she attended the University of California at Davis, married an American, raised two daughters and taught French and Spanish in California schools.

But what we discovered that REALLY links us is a common fascination with World War II and a desire to write about it. Claudine has written “Children of Brez,  a screenplay based on true events that occurred in a village in Brittany during the German occupation, whereas I have written books about GI.’s in France and French war brides. Having this mutual interest in the war induced us to interview each other. You will find Claudine’s recent interview with me posted on my website at:    

As for the interview I did with Claudine, the following article is based on it.

” Children of Brez” was inspired by a story about the brothers and sisters of Claudine’s Breton father, who died when she was three. Claudine’s mother told her the story when she was a young girl, and she never forgot it. Five years ago, after studying script-writing and doing interviews and filming in France, Claudine decided to write an original screenplay.

Claudine told me her grandmother had died at a very early age, leaving behind nine children; then her grandfather died in an accident, and the children were left to fend for themselves. This was about the time the war broke out. The children, including Claudine’s father, were living in very impoverished conditions and trying to make ends meet on the farm that was left to them. Their resources were also considerably limited by the German occupation. Since it appeared that the Germans wouldn’t be leaving, as many Bretons originally thought, some of the older children decided to help out the country and joined the underground; by doing various acts, they were actually quite influential in helping the Allies move from Normandy to Brittany. To the point that local “collaborationists” exposed them, thinking they could acquire their land or whatever their motivation was. The collaborationists actually suggested to the Germans that they go to the farm at nighttime and destroy it and probably the children, too, thus wiping out any possible “terrorists”, as they were called. Fortunately, Claudine’s father and his brothers and sisters were tipped off and were able to flee into the hills before the Germans arrived. They watched the farm burn from a distance.

This story always intrigued Claudine, and five years ago she started researching it. She first thought she was going to do a documentary and went to Brittany to conduct interviews with her aunts and uncles, but they were elderly and somewhat reluctant to talk about their experiences. So it would have been difficult to create a documentary centered on their testimonies. In the meantime, she came across a document that her aunt’s husband had gotten from a friend, a local villager. It’s a first-hand account of another story that occurred about the same time. It’s about a group of young people who had gotten together on a farm to celebrate a birthday and how, again, a collaborationist, tipped off the Germans, wrongly so, saying the young people were plotting a revolutionary attack against the Germans. So the Germans proceeded to ambush them during the birthday party in retaliation. They humiliated them and, over a period of several days, brutalized them in the local villages in the area.

This account left a great impression on Claudine. She began thinking that since both stories were generated in the same local area, perhaps they could be combined as a homogenized over-story. She took several classes in screen-writing and then began writing “Children of Breiz”, which merges both stories. Breiz is the Breton word for Brittany.

Claudine said one motivation for writing the script was to draw attention to the Breton sub-culture. According to her, Brittany is very different from other regions in France. It is Celtic in origin. It’s very traditional and, given that there’s not much industry in the area, little has changed over the years. People are still ethnocentric and clannish in certain parts of Brittany.

Claudine also thinks what happened in Brittany gives a different twist to the French experience during World War II. She said the Germans were attracted to Brittany because of its coastline and proximity to Britain. And when the Germans came to Brittany, many Bretons were actually, at first, in favor of the Germans because they thought the Germans would help them separate from France! But then they realized that the Germans had come under false pretenses and that they were being occupied and abused by the Germans. She used as an example the fact that the Germans made each Breton family give up one of their sons, whom they sent to Germany to work in German arms factories. The Germans thought the Bretons would be more loyal than Jewish workers, for example, because the Germans and Bretons were, at least at first, on good terms. But then the Bretons caught on, and many young Bretons went into hiding.

Claudine admitted that she is very proud of having both Breton (by her father) and Alsatian (by her mother) ancestries. She said that for years, the French would look down upon the Bretons and not recognize the Breton culture as an important sub-culture in French society. To illustrate her point, she said that the Breton language used to be banned from schools, and such epithets as “tête de Breton, tête de cochon” (Bretons are stubborn as pigs) were prevalent. Ever since Brittany was annexed to France back in the 17th century, Bretons have had a “separatist” streak and a desire to be autonomous They have also proudly kept up many of their traditions, such as folk dances, music, and festivals. In many ways, it is the same for the Alsatians, who have their own language and customs. Claudine mentioned that in addition to affecting her Breton relatives, World War II also had an effect on her Alsatian family. Her maternal grandfather was sent to a German concentration camp, and her grandmother lived through the bombings in the countryside and providentially escaped being killed when one fell on a nearby air-raid shelter.

Claudine thinks it is a good thing that French sub-cultures like the Breton and Alsatian cultures are beginning to be recognized in France. She would like Americans to recognize them, too. She also said that the anti-French movement in the U.S. in the 1990’s was very painful to live through. At that time, many people talked about French capitulation and collaboration during World War II. “They called the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” she said. Luckily, the Americans and the French seem to be “friends” again, but, as Claudine mentioned, a lot of French people still haven’t come to terms with certain things that happened in France during World War II– with the collaboration, for example. “I have a hard time forgiving what happened in Bleiz,” she confessed. “It was emotionally very difficult to find out and write about it.”

Claudine hopes that her screenplay will be made into a movie, either in the U.S. or France (she’s in the process of translating it into French) or in both, and she has started seeking a producer.  Her hope is that in addition to reaching an adult audience, her film will also be seen by teenagers. “They don’t know much about this period and can learn from the past,” she said. “I’d also like to show them that young people can make a difference if they act, are pro-active, and don’t remain passive. And I think film is such a great medium for teaching teenagers. They can learn about history by watching real people in real situations. It comes alive for them.”

Nostalgia: Paris, New Haven, Millbrook

This past month has been a time of nostalgia for me.

Watching Woody Allen’s charming new film, “Midnight in Paris”, a few weeks ago while in Berkeley, I was reminded of my own reactions to Paris when I first moved there as a teenager back in 1962. Like Woody, I was imbued with the readings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald; I knew that Gertrude Stein had called them and others “a Lost Generation” and was a friend of Picasso, Braque and Matisse; and  I became enchanted with the many monuments and beauties of the city. At 15, book in hand, I did “the Memorable Feast tour” of Hemingway’s haunts on my own long before such walking tours became popular. And after reading Fitzgerald’s biography, it was easy for me to visit the Etoile and imagine inebriated Scott and Zelda riding atop taxi cabs there at night in the 20s.

In 1962, the Orsay was a train station, and French impressionist paintings were still housed in the Jeu de Paume in the Tuilleries Gardens. There were no McDonalds or Pizza Huts in France back then, so after school my fellow classmates from “ASP” (American School of Paris) and I would congregate and play baby foot in cafés on the Champs Elysées or do our homework at the American Library, then located on the famous boulevard.

Other memories of living in Paris in the early 60s fill my mind. The Algerian war was still going on, and a plastic bomb went off in our apartment building, apparently placed by someone from the OAS, an underground movement of French generals who want Algeria to remain French, because a pro-independence politician lives in our building.. At ASP, which, at the time, was located in Madame du Barry’s hunting pavilion in Louveciennes, we listened to talks by personnel from the Embassy on the reasons for France’s anti-American sentiment and were cautioned on what to do in case of emergency. In Paris in the 60s, it could take months to get a telephone line installed; the W.C. was often on the landing instead of inside apartments; and heating was poor. There were no supermarkets and little “self-service.” My mother, who didn’t speak French, once got her hands slapped by a greengrocer when she touched the tomatoes at a fruit stand to see if they were ripe!

I also remember that since France hadn’t yet pulled out of NATO, numerous U.S. army bases dotted the French countryside. Because my father worked at the U.S.Embassy, we had “PX privileges” at did our shopping at the PX in St. Cloud or went to see American movies on the Camp des Loges base in St. Germain-en-Laye.


Another continent, another place and time…Two weeks ago, I went “back east” with my friend Tom to attend his 50th class reunion from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. At Yale, too, a film evoked memories, both for him and his 400 or so classmates, but also for the 350+ of us accompanying them.

“1000 Voices”, a documentary produced by Legacy Documentaries especially for the reunion, contains not only interviews with 82 alums, who were chosen to represent the 1000 members of the class, but also evocative footage and clips about the turbulent Sixties. Most of us cried watching it. The poignant stories of college camaraderie, the first-person narratives about classmates’ successes and failures, as well as the iconic images of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, MLK, Motown musicians, and Vietnam all brought back our own memories of those years.

During the weekend, we were reminded of what Yale was like in the 60s and how it has changed. An all-male university when Tom was there, Yale went “co-ed” in 1971. Today, women make up 50% of the student body, and in addition to the famous Whiffenpoofs, there is now a female singing group called the Whim ‘n Rhythms. Once practically all-white, at a time when “diversity” meant enrolling students from western or southern states, the university’s white population is  now only 45.8%,  and 10% are foreign born. There is an active LGBT community, whereas in Tom’s day at Yale, one’s sexual orientation was kept in the closet. Indeed, in a poignant scene in the film, a gay classmate tells how much pressure there was back then to be “normal.” Like most of his classmates, he went on to marry after graduation, but the consequence was that he had to go through decades of therapy trying to figure things out. It was only when he was in his mid fifties that he found the courage to divorce his wife and acknowledge his homosexuality.

Some 175 of the Class of 1961 have passed away. During a moving service one afternoon, a Jewish rabbi, a Protestant minister and a Catholic priest celebrated their memory, their widows and families, and the friendships they made while at Yale.  In break-out sessions, in private conversations, and in the photo “yearbook” given to the alums, classmates reminisced about their college days and brought each other up to date on their past and present activities. Spouses and “significant others” were also invited to share during the break-out sessions. The ambience was warm, inclusive and honest. Looking back over the years with reflexive mellowness, most of the classmates, who are now in their seventies, painted their lives and experiences in realistic terms. Illnesses, addictions, dysfunctional relationships with spouses and children, regrets, and other concerns were mentioned. But, so, too, were life’s blessings, as well as memories of professors, courses, antics, and activities while in New Haven.

Admittedly, nostalgia imbued the blue-and-white Yale reunion, just as it does “Midnight in Paris”, and, to a certain extent, both the Yale alums and Woody Allen romanticize their memories. Still, it cannot be denied that Paris of the 20s and the writers and artists of the Lost Generation had a lasting effect on Woody Allen. Similarly, it would seem that their college years at Yale greatly affected the lives of the members of the Class of 1961.

I have my own somewhat romanticized memory of Yale as well. In the mid 60s, I was invited to spend several weekends there by a classmate at Bennett College who just so happened to be the daughter of the then Yale President, Kingman Brewster. Those visits were brought back to me when we drove by the President’s House two weeks ago and then drove on to Millbrook, New York, where the buildings that used to house Bennett still stand.

I say “used to” because Bennett, a small two-year college for women founded in 1890, no longer exists. It went into bankruptcy in the 1970s and closed down completely in 1978, following attempts to survive by going four-year and amalgamating with Briarcliff College.

What a sad sight it was to see Bennett today! Whereas Yale’s Gothic-style buildings are still vibrant and alive, Halcyon Hall, Bennett’s main wooden structure, which was originally built as a 200-room luxury hotel, has been left abandoned for the past 33 years. (See for a pictorial history of the place.)

Unlike the Yale alums’, my memories of Bennett are not romanticized. I was not happy there and always felt out of place, especially as most of my classmates came from prominent families and were more interested in riding horses and dating men from Ivy League colleges than studying. I’d have preferred attending a much larger, more urban, university for my first two years of college. In fact, I only went there because they awarded me a very generous creative writing scholarship and because I wanted to be on the east coast.

Still, looking back, as often happens, I realize now that spending two years of my life at Bennett wasn’t all bad. I made three or four good friends, whom I’m still in touch with today. I remember meeting Edward Albee, Robert Graves and Betty Friedan. This is because Bennett was known for the arts and attracted visiting writers, artists and performers. I also remember that my first year there the whole college went down to New York City for a week to attend plays and concerts and visit museums. While at Bennett, I also got a chance to visit some famous universities. In addition to Connie Brewster’s invitations to Yale, I was also invited several times to Radcliffe to visit a close friend; and I went on some “blind dates” at Harvard, Princeton, West Point and “U.Va”.

Paris, New Haven, Millbrook…I’m grateful for these nostalgic memories—be they romanticized or realistic–from the past.

Outreach at Stagebridge

“Da, da, la, la, la…” Interrupting her story, my classmate—I’ll call her Rachel– swirls about the room playing a Hebrew melody on a harmonica. She tells us how she used to love to listen to her beloved father, who died of cancer when she was only 14 years’ old, play this very same instrument. She and her father never spoke about the fact that he was going to die. Now a mother, Rachel shares with us that she has spoken to her 12-year-old son about her own cancer, but she wonders whether, or when, to evoke the possibility of death. Later on, she suggests discussing “difficult stories” as a topic for future classes. Following her 10 minute performance, Kirk, our deep-voiced, African-American instructor, gives his feedback and then asks for ours. As usual, he is encouraging and constructive; our classroom is a “safe space” which he has created without being overly “p.c.” We are all affected by what we have seen and heard. Rachel is a youngish, talented woman who has been an active participant in our course. We had no idea she was ill. We learn later that Kirk himself is a widower with two young children who has lost his wife to cancer.

Despite their personal problems, Rachel and Kirk, as well as most of the other members of Stagebridge, the nationally-recognized, Oakland-based, non-profit, senior performing arts group, go out into the community—into hospitals, senior centers and schools– sharing their storytelling and performing skills. In existence since 1978, Stagebridge offers older adults an opportunity to learn, take risks and give back. In addition to providing reasonably-priced classes and workshops in acting, storytelling, comedy, improvisation, musical theater, singing, voice, mime, playback theater and playwriting, Stagebridge has developed outreach programs through which members can perform publicly and teach in community, health care and corporate agencies, as well as in libraries, clubs, and museums. Through its Storybridge Schools Programs, they can go into local elementary schools to tell stories and teach underprivileged kids how to interview their grandparents. Stagebridge is also the west coast representative of “Time Slips”, a creative storytelling method Stagebridge members can use to help people with dementia. And for the last five years, Stagebridge has offered a Performing Arts Camp in the summer for adults 50+.

A fellow performer recently wrote: “I found something at Stagebridge that not only fills my heart and soul but also challenges me.” Like her, my own experience at Stagebridge this past year has not only been rewarding and positive but also challenging. Being a right-side of the brain type of person, the classes I have taken and the performances that ensued have pushed me well beyond my “comfort zone.” I have worked as an oral historian and collected other people’s stories on tape, but I have never had to actually TELL stories myself before and in public, no less. Nor have I ever been uninhibited enough to do mime or to act on stage before. (I recently participated in a Stagebridge “showcase” performance where there were some 90+ people in the audience.). And even though I have written two non-fiction books, I’d never written a short play before.

These new experiences have been not only demanding on a personal level but also fun, and the camaraderie and constructive feedback exceptional. What particularly warmed my heart and soul, however, were the two opportunities I was given to give back to local communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. In November, my beginning acting class performed a series of radio plays at the San Francisco Lighthouse Center for the BlindThen a week ago, two classmates from my Stagebridge storytelling class and I performed for a group of disabled people at the Oakland Rehabilitation Center. (My story was based on a biography I’d read about millionaire Alma Spreckels, the founder of the California Legion of Honor.) In both instances, our performances were greatly appreciated by our audiences, and we have been invited back.

I’m leaving the Bay Area for a couple of months, but I hope that when I return here in the spring, in addition to taking other classes and workshops, I’ll have more opportunities to participate in Stagebridge’s outreach programs. Despite my stage fright, I have come to realize that I really quite enjoy performing, especially when I can bring a little bit of entertainment and lightness to people whose lives are a lot less fortunate than mine.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 7:18 am  Comments (4)  
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A Memorable Theater Experience in Berkeley

I am a theater buff and was delighted to be able to attend shows in London and New York this summer. The San Francisco Bay Area also has a lot to offer in the way of theater, and in order to go often and inexpensively while I’m here, I have taken advantage of “rush tickets” and “pay as much as you want” evenings at certain theaters.

When I go to a play, I appreciate a good story, good acting, and good “tempo.” There were a few plays I haven’t appreciated while here, but on the whole I’ve come away satisfied. Some of the plays I’ve particularly enjoyed this fall are Bill Irwin’s original adaptation of Molière’s comedy “Les Fourberies de Scapin” at San Francisco’s ACT, Word-for-Word’s rendering of stories from “Olive Kitteridge” ( the best-selling book by Elizabeth Strout), African-American Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” at the Aurora, and Ann Randolph’s one-woman show at The Marsh in Berkeley. All of these plays had their own value, but I think the show that really had an impact on me and rises above the others was “The Great Game: Afghanistan”, which I saw two weeks ago at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Produced by London’s Tricycle Theatre and supported by the British Council, “The Great Game” was only in Berkeley for two weeks, en route to Minneapolis, New York and Washington, D.C.  A collection of short scripts by 12 playwrights that are divided into three parts, it is a seven and a half hour trilogy telling the story of western intervention in Afghanistan over the past 150 years. Audiences had the option of seeing all three plays in a day-long marathon or on different days or just seeing one or two of the plays individually.   I opted to see each of the three plays in chronological order over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  I don’t regret my choice, although friends who chose the marathon said it meant for a truly worthwhile experience because they became fully absorbed in the story and characters.

Commenting on the play, artistic director Nicolas Kent said: “We very much hope that this trilogy and the theatre can play its part in continuing to stimulate the public’s discussion and debate on what is currently the most important focus of UK and American foreign policy.” In a way, “The Game” resembles a mini history course on how competing countries try to control Afghanistan and the latter’s fierce resistance to foreign domination. Part One is entitled “Invasions and Independence” and covers the period 1842-1929; Part Two, “Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban” (1980-1996); and Part Three, “Enduring Freedom” (1996-2009).

But in addition to being very informative, the plays are also very entertaining. Kudos to the 14 British actors who took on so many different roles and performed so well!  And what a treat iwas to hear real British accents here in Berkeley!

As is often the case in Bay Area theaters, Berkeley Rep provided theater-goers with the opportunity to hear a post-performance talk by someone associated with the play. In this case, director Indhu Rubasingham engaged in conversation with Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, the first Afghan-American to become president of a U.S. university. I wasn’t able to attend their talk, but I had the good fortune of standing next  to Ms Rubasingham during the intermission on the first day’s performance and being able to ask her a few questions about the production. She told me how the plays were commissioned and put together; she also described how after spending the whole day together watching the trilogy, audiences in London would begin discussing and sharing their views during intermissions and before and after the show.

I feel lucky about whom I sat with during two of the three performances. On the first day, which was for the press, I was the guest of my friend Diane Le Bow, a photo journalist who has visited Afghanistan several times and has written about her experiences there. She even helped organize and participated in a conference held in Tajikistan in 2000 during which Afghan women debated what statements they wanted written into the new Afghan Constitution.  After seeing the show together, we had a very interesting conversation, and I learned a lot from her. I went on my own the second day, but at curtain’s close, feeling the emotion of the moment, the two people stting next to me and I began talking.

The woman to my left told us her brother is a judge advocate in the elite U.S. Army Rangers and has been in Afghanistan for the past year, following deployments to Iraq and Bosnia. His wife, who is also a lawyer and who joined the army in order to pay for college, has now been sent to Afghanistan as well. They have a ten-month-old baby they’ve had to leave behind with grandparents. She said her brother had really changed over the past few years and was suffering from PTSD.  She’d come to see the play to learn more about the country and the situation there.

The young man on my right said after two tours in Afghanistan, his cousin also suffered from PTSD: he had returned “racist” and “crazy”. This made the young man wonder whether his decision to soon join the army in order to get med school paid for was a good idea. He said he wanted to specialize in “field medicine” and that UC Davis had a good program in this that the army would pay for. He also said his dream was to join MSF (Medecins sans Frontieres) following graduation. The woman, who told us she was of Hungarian descent, advised him NOT to join the army; she saw what had happened to her brother.  She spoke to the young man about Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, saying that he should apply to him for a scholarship to attend medical school.  As for me, I told the young man I was pretty sure he could be a doctor for MSF even without majoring in field medicine, so he wouldn’t necessarily have to go to Davis and join the army. When we parted in front of the theater, the young man thanked the woman and me profusely for listening and giving him some suggestions.

I realized the three of us had each come to see the play for different reasons.  Indhu Rubasingham was right: As in London, “The Great Game” had incited us to discuss and share. In addition to the provocative subject matter and the quality of the acting, the play had elicited our, as well as others’, reactions and comments about many different subjects related to Afghanistan and western intervention there.

Although I am a theater buff and go often to the theater, not all the plays I’ve seen have provided such a memorable experience as “The Great Game: Afghanistan”.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Comments (1)