Tag Archives: Paris

Crawling Through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland

We gathered on a chilly October evening in the venerable Duke pub at 9 Duke Street in the heart of Dublin, not quite certain what to expect.  We’d come across praise for the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl in at least two of our guidebooks, Lonely Planet’s (which called it “excellent and highly recommended…great fun and…a fine introduction to Dublin pubs and Irish literary history”), as well as the Ireland guide by the always-dependable travel writer Rick Steves.

The night before, we’d relished the wonderful Dublin Musical Pub Crawl that began at Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Pub on Temple Bar.

How could we pass up this one?   As fans of literary fiction, including that of the great Irish writers, we simply couldn’t.

To ensure that we wouldn’t be turned away, we walked from Grafton Street to Duke Street early enough to have a pleasant dinner at The Duke pub before positioning ourselves at the front of the ticket line.  We had no regrets about arriving early:  a large group assembled, eager to begin the crawl at 7:30 pm, and latecomers may indeed have been turned away.

To begin, two actors (both probably fifty-plus) stood in front of the group and launched into a scene from “Waiting for Godot.” They very clearly pronounced the name as “God-oh,” with emphasis on “God.”

Ever since my first encounter with the Samuel Beckett play when I was 22, I’d heard it pronounced “Gah-doh,” with emphasis on “doh.”  But here we were in Ireland, where Beckett began his writing career.  Which pronunciation was right?  According to one source, the name is pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable in Britain and Ireland, while the norm in North America is to emphasize the second syllable.  But what about Beckett himself?  He settled in Paris in 1938 and wrote the play there in 1948-49.  And apparently both he and his French literary agent always pronounced it in “the French manner,” with equal emphasis on both syllables.

Pronunciations aside, the scene the actors chose from “Waiting for Godot” was brilliant and performed with the precise amount of irony and absurdist humor it demanded.

The actors then led us to three other notable pubs, where they spoke/performed either inside the pub or outside on a street near the pub.  I later learned the actors’ names:  Colm Quilligan (could it be more Irish?) and his colleague Derek (whose last name I failed to catch).

The first of the three pubs was O’Neill’s, on a corner at 2 Suffolk Street, with a remarkably pretty exterior featuring four tall windows that rise above its name.  Near the campus of Trinity College, it’s famous for a diverse set of patrons, including many writers.

At one of the pubs, maybe O’Neill’s, we entered a good-sized “snug,” a quiet area in the pub set apart from the usual pub revelry.  On the snug’s walls were framed photographs of the four Irish writers who’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  (Do you remember who those four prizewinners were?)  The photos were helpful reminders of Ireland’s literary history as we continued our crawl, listening to excerpts from a variety of Irish poets and playwrights.

At one stop, Colm and Derek read a hilarious passage from Oscar Wilde’s reminiscence of his lecture tour in America, in particular his encounter with the miners of Leadville, Colorado.  Here’s a bit of it:  “I read them passages from…that great Florentine genius…Cellini, and he proved so popular that they asked…’why the hell I hadn’t brought him with me’. I explained that [he] had been dead for some years, which elicited the immediate demand: ’who shot him?’”

We moved on to The Old Stand, located at the corner of Exchequer Street and St. Andrew Street.  Its most famous patron was Michael Collins, whose efforts led to the creation of the Irish Free State.  He reportedly visited this pub to gather information about members of the British Secret Service.

The crawl ended in front of Davy Byrne’s, a pub back on Duke Street, near where the crawl began.  The actors pointed out a significant literary reference–a scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses is set there–and read an excerpt from it.  The pub is just one site that honors Joyce’s book during the Bloomsday celebration held in Dublin every year.  We learned that both Dubliners and literary tourists don “boaters” and read from the novel at Davy Byrne’s each Bloomsday.

As we stood in front of Davy Byrne’s (where the name reminded me of the beleaguered first—and so far only—woman mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne), Colm and Derek asked our group a batch of questions based on things we’d heard and seen during the crawl.  One key question:  the names of the four Irish Nobel Prize winners.

When my daughter Leslie got all of them right, and also answered more of the other literary questions than anyone else in our group, she was awarded with a t-shirt!  The dark green shirt, emblazoned with “Dublin Literary Pub Crawl,” along with an image of stained glass at The Duke pub, will forever be a tangible reminder of our delightful evening crawling through Irish literature in Dublin’s pubs.

PS  The Nobel laureates (in case you don’t remember):  George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and poet Seamus Heaney.  Heaney, probably the least known of the four, is the most recent winner (in 1985).  For a long while he was a poet-in-residence at Harvard, and during her college years there, my daughter Meredith was fortunate to hear him recite his stunning poetry—from memory—several times.  She also helped entice him to give a memorable speech to students, like her, who wrote for its literary journal, The Advocate.

 

Watching the movie “Z”: A tale of two Hoffmans

January 1st marks an unusual anniversary for me.

On January 1, 1970, I watched the movie “Z”—a film I consider a powerful and enduring classic—under somewhat remarkable circumstances.

The 1969 film was directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker who lived in Paris. He based it on a book written in 1966 by Vassilis Vassilikos, who, using official documents, described the 1963 death of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis.

Lambrakis, an MD who taught at the medical school in Athens, was a leading pacifist and left-wing member of the Greek parliament. Shortly after speaking at an antiwar meeting in Thessaloniki, he was struck on the head by a club wielded by two far-right extremists. He later died of his injuries.

After his death, graffiti with the letter “Z” began to appear in Greek cities. Representing the growing protest against the right-wing government, it stood for the first letter of the Greek word, “Zi,” which means “he lives.”

In a filmed interview in 2009, Costa-Gavras discussed the making of “Z.” (You can watch this interview, as I did, on a DVD of “Z.”)

His focus was clear: political oppression. His cast: Yves Montand as Lambrakis, Irene Pappas as his wife, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor who slowly realizes what happened and is ultimately driven to seek justice against the wrongdoers.

In the film, a key scene takes place in front of the venue where Lambrakis is scheduled to give his speech. Many supporters have gathered to welcome him, but others in the crowd are demonstrators opposed to him and what he stands for. The local police are seen clubbing a few of the demonstrators. But it’s clear that the demonstrators are the bad guys–street toughs paid off by those in power to harm Lambrakis.

So it’s not the police who represent oppression here. Rather, it’s the demonstrators, one of whom strikes Lambrakis in the head. He’s stunned but goes ahead to give his speech. When leaving the venue, he’s struck once again, causing him to die later in the film.

Before he’s struck, Lambrakis asks, “Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?” Costa-Gavras’s answer: It’s all about power. Those in power will do anything to stay in power, and here that included the assassination of a political opponent.

Post-1963, Greek politics remained chaotic, and a 1967 coup by the military led to their control of the Greek government until their regime finally collapsed and democratic government was essentially restored in 1973.

I first saw “Z” at the Cinema movie theater in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1970.   The Cinema was an art-film theater located on Chicago Avenue near Michigan Avenue, and I saw many “art flicks” there when I was younger.  It’s long-gone, demolished and replaced by a high-rise building that includes a Neiman Marcus store.

I was a young lawyer working in an office that brought test cases on behalf of the poor.  I’d recently completed a clerkship with Judge Julius J. Hoffman, the judge who presided over “the Chicago 7 trial” (also called “the Chicago conspiracy trial”) that got underway in the fall of 1969 and was still ongoing in early 1970.  The trial stemmed from the turmoil engulfing the Democratic convention held in Chicago in 1968. (Happily, I never had to work on that trial. My clerkship was ending, and my co-clerk was assigned to that task.)

[FYI: I will discuss my tenure with Judge Hoffman in an upcoming post.]

I read about “Z” in Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December. Ebert was an unusually young and thoughtful movie critic, close to my own age, and I was a great fan of his reviews. This review, which called “Z” the best film of 1969, highlighted the political backdrop of corruption, and I was eager to see it.  I’d just said goodbye to a man I’d been dating—he was a bit too boring to abide any longer—and I set out on a cold and gray New Year’s Day to see the movie by myself. (As luck would have it, I met my adored and never-boring husband when I moved to sunny California a few months later.)

The film more than lived up to my expectations.  But what was especially striking about being in the audience that day was that, in the crowd waiting to enter the theater, was one of the “Chicago 7” defendants, Abbie Hoffman (no relation to Judge Hoffman).  In that era, Abbie Hoffman was a major figure in the protest movement opposing the government. All seven of the Chicago defendants were protesters indicted by “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s administration.

I didn’t agree with everything that Abbie Hoffman and his cohorts stood for, and I didn’t endorse their misconduct during the trial itself.  But I was opposed to the Vietnam War, sympathetic to other elements of the protest movement, and horrified later that year by events like the killings at Kent State.

As I watched “Z,” knowing that Abbie Hoffman was watching it at the very same time, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Chicago.  Fortunately, our government (unlike the powerful right wing in Greece) didn’t promote assassination.

But there were parallels.  The attitude of local officials, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, toward the protesters who came to Chicago led to an overreaction by the Chicago police. Their violent conduct toward the protesters became obvious to everyone watching TV coverage of the Democratic convention. The U.S. Justice Department went on to indict Abbie Hoffman and the other defendants on charges brought under a law many viewed as unconstitutional.

But there was one sharp contrast between Chicago and Greece: the prosecutors.

I’d fallen halfway in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant when he starred in “A Man and a Woman,” a 1967 French film. Now, in “Z,” he portrayed a fair-minded prosecutor who becomes determined to hold the powerful to account. And he succeeds in indicting not only the two toughs who committed the murder but also the high-ranking military officers who supported them.

(The real-life prosecutor, Christos Sartzetakis, was twice arrested and imprisoned but triumphed after democracy was restored and was elected by the Greek parliament to serve as the country’s president from 1985 to 1990.)

By contrast, the prosecutors representing the Nixon administration in Chicago were politically ambitious and far from fair-minded. They were determined to convict the seven defendants, including Abbie Hoffman, whose protests during the convention had been largely peaceful. They secured as the trial judge a man whose usual bent was to rule in favor of the federal prosecutors who appeared before him, and he treated this trial like any other.

No one was killed in Chicago. And although the trial defendants were convicted, they were convicted only of contempt, and these convictions were mostly reversed by other courts. But the parallels between what transpired in Chicago and the story told in “Z” remain.

46 years later, “Z” is still a powerful film. And January 1, 1970, endures in my memory as a day that underscored the ugliness of political oppression both in Greece and in my own country.

Celebrating Love in the City of Light

Along with the rest of the civilized world, I was horrified to learn of the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on November 13th. They were followed by an equally–perhaps even more–disturbing attack in San Bernardino.

Both of these have shaken me. San Bernardino? Because it hit so close to home.

Paris? Because Paris has a special place in my heart.

Special indeed. I celebrated my first, tenth, and 26th wedding anniversaries in Paris.

Celebrating anniversaries in Paris…. Romantic, n’est-ce pas?  But here’s what’s more important: Those anniversaries were filled with the kind of love that lasts even longer than spine-tingling heart-pounding romance.

On our first anniversary, Herb and I were in Paris on our very first trip to Europe. We made plans to dine with some old friends (including one of Herb’s Harvard roommates) who were living in Geneva and drove into Paris to see us.  We didn’t tell them it was our anniversary till we visited them in Geneva several days later. (I think Herb didn’t want them to treat us to dinner.)

So on our anniversary we dined at a typical French restaurant near our hotel on the Boulevard Saint-Germain instead of a pricey and far more elegant one. When we finally confided that we’d spent our first wedding anniversary with them, Herb’s roommate said, “You should have told us! We could have blown our wad and gone to the Tour d’Argent.”

But I hadn’t minded our modest dinner on the Left Bank. Just being with Herb, along with our friends, was more than enough. The evening had been filled with laughter and love. And there was plenty of time for romance later when we were alone.

Our tenth anniversary was very different. Herb was on a sabbatical from the university in Chicago where he taught math.  During our month in Paris, Herb spent most days at the University of Paris, where he communed with other mathematicians while I shepherded our two small daughters (ages 4 and 7) around the city.

We ate dinner together every night, and our anniversary dinner was no exception. We dined with our daughters at a small and inexpensive bistro on the Left Bank, very near our apartment in the 5th arrondisement. Our modest apartment was on the Rue Tournefort, one street over from the better-known Rue Mouffetard, and the area, just off the Place de la Contrescarpe, was filled with bistros like this one.

We were preoccupied with our daughters, making sure we ordered food they would cheerfully eat (no fancy French sauces for them!), and reprimanding them if their behavior became too rambunctious. So as an anniversary dinner, it wasn’t glamorous, and it certainly wasn’t romantic. But the love all of us felt for each other turned the evening into a memorable one I’ll never forget.

Our 26th anniversary was even better. By this time, our daughters were no longer children, and our older daughter, Meredith, was spending all year in Paris on a graduate fellowship at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Herb and I, along with our younger daughter, Leslie, traveled to Paris to meet Meredith and spend some time there, after which the four of us traveled together in France for another ten days.

Our anniversary fell on our third day in Paris, and Herb asked me to choose a place for dinner. I picked a small restaurant on the Ile St.-Louis, one of my favorite places in all of Paris.

We walked there from our Left Bank hotel, strolling along the Seine, crossing the bridge that leads to Notre-Dame, then crossing the bridge to the Ile. The weather was sunny and warm, and we laughed and chatted as we walked.

We arrived on the island and enjoyed perusing menus posted outside the restaurants on the Rue St.-Louis-en-Ile as we approached our destination. Then we shared a delightful dinner at the restaurant I’d chosen, where our charming waiter took photos of us laughing and eating and reveling in just being together.  After dinner, we strolled to Berthillon, famed for its glaces and their unique flavors, and we devoured our ice cream on the spot. That evening was one of the most blissful I’ve ever spent.

I’ve been to Paris on five other trips (I wrote about one of them in a blog post last November, “Down and Hot in Paris and London”). I recently returned for the eighth time, and Paris was just as beautiful as I remembered.

But Paris without Herb? It’s never been quite the same.

When Herb died, he left me with years of memories filled with the extraordinary love and happiness we shared.  The three anniversaries we celebrated in Paris are at the top of my list.

 

 

 

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell) Part IV

PART IV

My family trip to France and the U.K. in the summer of 1995 found us in the midst of a record-setting heat wave in both countries. Parts I, II, and III of this post have described the challenges of hot-weather travel in cities like Paris that aren’t usually very hot.

In Part IV, I pick up the story in London, another city traditionally unaccustomed to hot weather.

Our daytime touring in London began to resemble a tour of hot exotic climes. When we passed by Trafalgar Square, we saw crowds surrounding the pools beneath Lord Nelson’s column, trying to cool off. Dozens of children frolicked in the pools of water as though they were neighborhood wading pools in Chicago.

Sadly, our attempt to tour the wondrous contents of the British Museum was a distinct failure. As we slowly meandered through the rooms devoted to ancient Egypt, pushing our way through the sweaty crowd, I could have sworn we were in a suffocating museum in Egypt itself. I almost envied the mummies in their amazingly-well-preserved cases. Maybe it was cooler in there? We’d planned to stay all morning, but we left after barely an hour.

Another project that went down the tubes was our plan to escort our daughters into a couple of London pubs, where they could soak up the very British atmosphere along with a pint or two of ale. But our attempts to go pub-crawling went nowhere. Every time we entered a pub, it was unbearably hot and filled with cigarette smoke. All the outside tables were already taken, so we couldn’t quaff any ale that way either. So long, London pub-crawl.

The London buses continued to be insanely hot. Their windows opened for about three inches at the very top, where the breeze barely did any good–when there was a breeze. The Tube was somewhat better, although one newspaper headline read “100 DEGREES F IN THE TUBE,” so at times it must have been blazing hot down there, too.

I’d given up wearing makeup by this time–my lipstick kept melting–and I let my hair go “au naturel.” Why not? We no longer cared how we looked, to each other or to anyone else. So if my hair was inordinately frizzy, and my face sans makeup looked less than gorgeous, who cared?

When I checked my money belt, which I wore at my waist, it was–not surprisingly–damp. But I was surprised that the moisture around my waist had permeated the belt’s contents. I had the world’s dampest traveler’s checks!

Meanwhile, our supply of clean clothes was dwindling, and things were becoming desperate. We’d hoped to find a nearby laundromat but never did, and we’d begun to resort to hand-washing. My small supply of Woolite was nearly gone, so we headed to a supermarket for a substitute. There I found Fairy Liquid, a liquid soap I’d read about in books by English women novelists. I felt just like an English housewife of the 1950s as I poured Fairy Liquid into the tiny bathroom sink on Gower Street and plunged our dirty duds into the suds. (The Fairy Liquid label said “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.” Do you suppose the Queen uses it to wash her undies, too?)

On our last day in London, we left the city and traveled to the leafy green suburb of Hampstead, hoping to find a relatively cool and sylvan spot. There, in the midst of a large wooded park, is Kenwood House, a stunning historic house surrounding a spectacular art collection. Admission was free, and the staff were some of the friendliest people we met anywhere in England. A lovely respite from London’s crowds and heat, Kenwood House was a genuine treat.

For our last night in London, we bought tickets to the 100th-anniversary production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Old Vic. The theatre advertised itself as being air-conditioned, and in truth, it wasn’t all that bad inside. Viewing “Earnest,” I was almost comfortable in a long, loose-fitting cotton skirt (hence unconcerned about the potential itchiness of the seat’s upholstery). But my heart went out to the actors, dressed in the heavy satins and laces of Victorian finery. They had to be sweltering under the hot lights.

As we left the Old Vic, we felt a cool breeze for the first time in four days. The terrible heat was breaking–but not soon enough for us.

It was warm–but not hot–the next morning as we set off for Wales and the Cotswolds in a rented Vauxhall. As Herb met the challenge of right-hand drive with aplomb, we rambled around in comfort before leaving for home. Cardiff, Cheltenham, the tiny town of Bibury, Stratford-on-Avon—they were all reasonably cool. But after spending four unforgettable days in London dripping in sweat–from Westminster Abbey to Knightsbridge, from the Temple to Shaftsbury Avenue—we had a whole new outlook on summertime travel.

In retrospect, we had a terrific time together. We shared boundless adventures and rafts of laughs, creating memories to last a lifetime. But when we returned home, I asked myself: Would I plan another trip to England or France anytime soon?

Of course. I knew I would.

But would I plan it in “high season”? Not bloody likely. Give me London in March or April, when it rains a little nearly every day, and traveler’s checks get damp from rain instead of tummy-sweat. Or give me Paris in May, when the hint of sun is just enough to warm me up after a long gray winter.

“High season” in Paris or London? No thanks. “High season” sounded too much like “high temperatures” to ever tempt me again.

EPILOGUE

The four of us returned to France for over two weeks in May 1997. The weather was warm but not hot, and the trip—from Paris to Beaune, from Aix-en-Provence to Lyons–was blissful. Sadly, we were never able to take another European trip as a foursome, making the memories of those two fun-filled family trips even more precious.

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell) Part III

PART III

During the summer of 1995, my family and I traveled to France and the U.K. during a record-setting heat wave in Northern Europe. In Parts I and II of this post, I’ve described some of the challenges of our overheated stay in Paris and elsewhere in France.

After ten days in France, we departed for England on a posh air-conditioned ferry from Cherbourg, hoping to find cooler climes on the scepter’d isle. But the moment we disembarked in Portsmouth, our hearts sank. If anything, the air felt warmer and even more humid.

Our taxi driver dropped us and our bags unceremoniously at the train station (I don’t think he liked my remarks about the Royal Family). With no baggage carts anywhere, we dragged our bags to the ancient lift. We waited and waited and, finally fearing that we’d miss our train, we abandoned the idea of taking the lift and schlepped our bags up the flight of stairs to the track-level (it took two trips for each of us). At least the train itself was high-speed and air-conditioned.

At Waterloo Station we climbed into a black London cab and sped on our way to Gower Street in Bloomsbury. Our room was much like that in Paris–one large room with the same assortment of beds, and an enormous screenless window that was sure to be a beacon for the mosquitoes then plaguing London. (I actually read about them in The Times.)

But mosquitoes were not on our minds as we set out to see London on foot that afternoon. We’d sat for five hours on the ferry and another hour and a half on the train. We were raring to go, weren’t we?

The heat assaulted us as we walked hopefully up Gower Street toward Covent Garden and points east. Herb and I wanted Meredith and Leslie to see the Temple, home of their favorite TV lawyer, Horace Rumpole (of PBS’s Rumpole of the Bailey), and we set out in that direction, stopping at Covent Garden and other sites en route. But even at the Temple, on the Thames River embankment, the air felt like a heavy blanket.

A centuries-old Inn of Court, the Temple was in the midst of an ambitious renovation project. Forced to pick our way through the construction equipment and loose building materials strewn in our path, we found the Temple a massive disappointment, hardly worth the long walk in the sun. We crawled back to our hotel, stopping only for a high-carb spaghetti dinner before we collapsed in our beds on Gower Street.

The next day, we resolved to see as much of London as we could despite the oppressive heat. (That day turned out to be the hottest day of London’s summer–93 degrees.) We decided to take a city bus that meandered from Gower Street to Kensington. I’d be an unofficial tour-bus guide, telling our daughters about the sights of London with which Herb and I were already familiar. The bus was hot, and its seat cushions covered with itchy upholstery, but we’d set out fairly early so we didn’t yet mind terribly much.

The bus cut a wide swath through many of the city’s most interesting sights, and I proceeded to act as tour guide till we disembarked near Kensington Gardens, where we began walking back towards Piccadilly Square.

Things got sticky right away. As we passed Royal Albert Hall, we grabbed ice cream bars from a sidewalk vendor and kept going, in the shade wherever possible. Soon we hit the Knightsbridge shopping area and headed for Harrod’s. The massive department store was packed with people, and no wonder. It was air-conditioned. Hordes of women were lined up to use the restrooms. The “luxury ladies’ room” cost one pound per “lady” (then about $1.70) so we spent five minutes searching for one that didn’t cost anything. (It turned out to be adjacent to the book section, where huge stacks of signed copies of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography languished on a table.) We toured the impressive Food Hall and whizzed through some other departments, leaving without buying anything but grateful to have cooled off while we were there.

Across the street, at the non-air-conditioned Scotch House, we were nearly the only customers insane enough to even contemplate woolens on a 90-plus-degree-day. Meredith was hoping to get a warm woolen cap for winter, but surrounded by heaps of wooly wear for sale, we couldn’t find exactly what she wanted.

We kept walking past Knightsbridge towards Piccadilly. The grass in beautiful St. James’s Park was dry and brown, not the lush green lawn Herb and I had seen on previous trips. We stopped to rest on a shady park bench for a while, stunned to encounter Londoners who were deliberately sunning themselves. Some had even stretched out on portable lawn chairs, supplied by the park, in the sunniest spots available. Were they crazy, or what?

We forced ourselves to walk a few blocks more, heading for lunch at the Fountain Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason. En route, we peered into the elegant Ritz Hotel lobby. It was eerily deserted, no one lined up for “high tea” at the Palm Court tearoom. The uniformed doormen, wearing long heavy wool overcoats, looked absolutely miserable.

When we finally staggered into Fortnum & Mason and read the prices on the menu, we nearly swooned, but too hot and exhausted to go anywhere else, we decided to stay. We couldn’t face going elsewhere without some rest and sustenance, so we paid top dollar for skimpy salads and F&M’s famous milkshakes. At least the apricot milkshakes were worth it–almost.

After our overpriced lunch, we pushed on to Leicester Square and the half-price theatre-ticket booth. Scanning the board, we narrowed our choice down to a few offerings, then selected “Hot Mikado.” No, we hadn’t gone completely bonkers. The show was one of London’s musical hits that season. Plus, we all loved the original “Mikado,” and the idea of seeing a jazzed-up version in an air-conditioned theatre had great appeal. And so, after more sightseeing and freshening up at our hotel, we walked to the theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, looking forward to an evening of air-conditioned comfort.

Shock! No air-conditioning! We pinched each other in disbelief. Back home, we’d never heard of a theatre without air-conditioning. Even the humblest movie theatre showing third-run flicks had some sort of air-conditioning. But not this swank theatre! A couple of fans moved the air around a bit, but they couldn’t keep us from sweating through “Hot Mikado.” We loved the show but pitied the performers, whose sweat ran dripping down their faces. After the opening scene, the male chorus even took off their colorful jackets and sang and danced in their shirtsleeves. I didn’t blame them one bit.

The next night we made our way to the Aldwych Theatre to see Tom Stoppard’s latest hit, “Indian Ink.” Again, we were dismayed to discover that this prestigious theatre, showcasing brilliant stars of the London stage, was stifling. The same itchy upholstery found on London buses covered the theatre seats. As the lead in “Indian Ink”–a poet who travels to India in the 1920s–talked about a poem she was writing called “Heat,” I squirmed in my seat, trying to escape the bristly fabric. I was wearing shorts that night–we hadn’t had time to change before arriving at the theatre. Although I’d never imagined that I’d go to a London theatre in shorts, I regretted wearing them only because the itchy seats attacked my bare thighs more ferociously that way.

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell)

This post is something of a departure from my earlier ones. It’s the record of a family trip to Paris, London, and elsewhere in France and the U.K. during the summer of 1995. My family that summer included my husband Herb; our two college-aged daughters, Meredith and Leslie; and me. Our home was in a suburb of Chicago.

I originally drafted this piece in 1995, shortly after we returned from our trip. I focused on how we survived the intense heat we’d encountered. Now, nearly 20 years later, the cities we visited may respond to hot weather differently than they did back then. But my post may nevertheless serve as a cautionary tale for anyone traveling anywhere during hot weather, even today.

Please don’t conclude that this trip was a disaster. It wasn’t! Even though we continually confronted the challenges of hot-weather travel, we nevertheless had a marvelous time. We laughed through all of our travails and mishaps, and they quickly became family legends that we’ve treasured ever since.

Because of its overall length, I’ve divided it into four separate posts, beginning with Part I.

PART I

In a sweltering summer when temperatures in Chicago soared to record-breaking highs, we took off for Paris and London. When Herb and I made our travel plans, it seemed like a great idea. For one thing, Northern Europe almost never had the high summer temperatures we usually had in Chicago. Besides, our older daughter, Meredith, was spending the summer doing research in Paris. What better excuse for the rest of us to fly there, meet up with her, then travel together in France and the U.K.?

In May, we booked our airline tickets, planning to depart for Paris in mid-July. By June, I began to get glimmers that all was not well. Meredith was reporting unusually hot weather in Paris, and media dispatches from Wimbledon noted London temperatures in the 90s.

It can’t last, I thought. This is freakish weather for Paris and London, and by the time we get there, things will have cooled off.

But by the time we got there, it was just as hot.

Younger daughter Leslie, Herb, and I arrived in Paris early Friday morning and headed for the taxi stand at Orly Airport. The air was shimmering with heat–at 8 a.m.–and we were grateful to grab a taxi with air-conditioning. We arrived at our modest hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens and found our chambre, a good-sized room with one double bed and two twins. Heavy curtains on the French windows were fending off the sun, but when we opened them to see our view, the sun hit the room, and the already-high temperature shot up even more. We rushed to close the curtains. Then, exhausted from our trip, we collapsed on our sagging mattresses.

Meredith met up with us later that morning, and we all set out for the Luxembourg Gardens, where we found chairs in a shady spot and pondered how to spend the rest of the day. A museum would surely be cool; protecting all that priceless artwork required air-conditioning. We couldn’t face the cavernous Louvre, so we headed for the Musée d’Orsay.

Hot and sleep-deprived, we dragged ourselves up the Boulevard St-Michel to the Metro, and took a sizzling subway car to the museum. Surprise! Once inside, having paid a hefty entrance fee, we were shocked to find the air-conditioning barely functioning. Weren’t Parisians worried about all those precious Monets, Manets, and Van Goghs?

We forced ourselves to look at a few galleries but eventually collapsed in some comfy wicker chairs, where we dozed off for the next half-hour. Other museum-goers stared, but we were too hot and sleepy to care. We finally made our way to the museum café, where we ate a light lunch and consumed a large quantity of liquid refreshment.

After searching for an air-conditioned restaurant near our hotel–and finding none–we dined outside on the Rue Soufflot and headed for bed, only to discover another problem: mosquitoes! Our beautiful French windows had no screens, and if we opened the windows with the lights on, mosquitoes attacked us from every direction. We decided to leave the windows closed till it was time to turn out the lights.

Once we turned off the lights and opened the windows, a delicious breeze entered the room, cooling us off for the night. But the mosquitoes still targeted us, even in the dark, and traffic noise kept us from having a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, we awoke to a rainy Paris sky. In my lifetime of traveling, I’d never before been so happy to see rain! The gray sky meant lower temperatures, and we happily set out for another museum (the Musée d’Art Moderne, then featuring an impressive exhibit of Chagall paintings) without the threat of soaring temperatures and a merciless sun.

But as the day progressed, things got a lot steamier, and we decided to leave Paris a day earlier than planned. We would pick up our rental car and head for Rouen one day sooner. After dinner on the Rue du Pot de Fer, a pedestrian street a few steps from the busy Rue Mouffetard, we walked back to our hotel, prepared to be unwilling mosquito-targets one more night.

By now, we were all covered with bites, and the torment of itching had begun. Applying hydrocortisone cream helped, but not nearly enough. Meredith bought a more powerful French ointment formulated to ease insect bites, so we tried that, too. But those Parisian bugs were potent, and we proceeded to scratch their bites for days. (The bites on our feet created a special torment. Encased in heavy-duty athletic shoes–the better to walk in, my dear–our feet were not only piping-hot but also covered with bites that never stopped itching!)

The next morning dawned sunny but cooler. Miraculous! Did we really want to leave Paris a day early? Taking advantage of the cooler air, we set out on foot for the Marais, by way of the bouquinistes along the Seine, the Ile de la Cité, and the Ile St-Louis. By the time we arrived at the Rue des Rosiers, where we consumed kosher panini, the sun had become more intense, and the air was growing hot.

At the Musée Carnavalet, the displays of Parisian history and culture were fascinating, but the increasing heat and the enormous collection finally wore us down. Drained of energy, we spent the next hour sitting in the shade, zombie-like, in a small park just outside the museum.

Later, we walked to the Place des Vosges, where we sat for a while once again in the shade. The search for shade had become a rallying cry that resounded throughout the trip. “Shade!” I would shout, and the rest of our little group would hurry after me to reach the nearest patch of shade.

After another excellent dinner on the Rue du Pot de Fer, enjoying the sensory delights of a delicious breeze, I wondered whether we were right to leave Paris one day early. But the next morning, the sun was blazing with a vengeance, and all of us were grateful to pile into our rented Peugeot and head north to Normandy, where cooler temperatures awaited–or so we hoped!

Go p(nuts)! PB is actually good for you

Peanut-butter lovers of the world, rejoice!  This humble legume, in the form of an easy-to-eat spread, has recently earned some noteworthy praise.

First, one of the food industry’s harshest critics, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), has just celebrated the virtues of peanut butter.  In the October 2013 issue of its publication, Nutrition Action, CSPI notes that peanut butter–a lunchbox classic and a staple in 90 percent of U.S. households–is loaded with unsaturated fat, vitamin E, and magnesium, and it supplies some copper, fiber, and zinc as well.  (Some must steer clear of PB because of peanut-related allergies, but most of us can eat it with abandon.)

True, CSPI acknowledges that there’s one small problem with peanut butter:  it’s also loaded with calories. Most people probably eat about 250 calories’ worth in the typical sandwich.  According to CSPI, that’s much more than the 50 to 80 calories in the equivalent amount (roughly 2 ounces) of turkey, ham, or a quarter cup of tuna.  These alternatives also offer more protein:  10 to 12 grams as compared with the 7 or 8 grams in peanut butter.

For the 90 percent of us who relish eating peanut butter, CSPI suggests some new ways to trim the calories.  For starters, there’s powdered PB.  It’s made by slow-roasting and pressing peanuts to remove 85 percent of the oil.  You just mix the powder with water and stir.  According to CSPI, the result is a creamy texture and rich peanut taste for just 50 calories per serving (with roughly the same amount of protein as regular PB).

Two other new products are whipped PB (fewer calories but less protein) and Better ‘n Peanut Butter (defatted peanut flour, mixed with PB and sugars, also cuts both calories and protein).

Traditionalists might want to stick with “natural” PB or even oldies like Jif and Peter Pan.  Happily, none of them have trans fat any more.  Just watch out for the new “artisan” varieties that add chocolate and other sweet ingredients, upping the usual 1 or 2 grams of sugar all the way to 9 grams.  Who needs it?  If you crave PB infused with chocolate, go for broke and have a candy bar instead.

But wait, there’s more good news for peanut-butter lovers!  In addition to CSPI’s focus on PB as a healthy sandwich-filler, the medical community has just declared an even more significant finding.  A study announced in September by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (along with Harvard Medical School) revealed that girls ages 9 to 15 who regularly ate peanut butter or nuts were 39 percent less likely to develop benign breast disease by age 30.  Although benign breast disease is noncancerous, it increases the risk of breast cancer later in life.

Over 9,000 U.S. girls were part of the study, which began in 1996.  The researchers followed the girls until they were 18 to 30 years old.  This study is significant because it’s the first one that actually recorded what the girls were eating during their adolescent years (instead of relying on their recalling later what they had eaten years before).

The senior author of the study is Graham Colditz, M.D., a disease-prevention expert at Washington University’s School of Medicine.  Professor Colditz is an epidemiologist with a longstanding interest in cancer prevention, particularly among women.

According to Colditz, the findings in the recent study “suggest that peanut butter could help reduce the risk of breast cancer in women.”  He recommends that girls snack on peanut butter or nuts instead of reaching for high-calorie junk food and sugary beverages.

Wow!  Lots of great news about peanut butter!  I feel totally vindicated.  My instincts were right all along.

All those mornings making countless peanut-butter sandwiches for my daughters may have actually led to their staying healthy longer.  My choice to eschew fillings like bologna and head cheese (what was that stuff anyway?) probably didn’t hurt either.

A personal reminiscence about PB:  When my husband had a month-long sabbatical in Paris during the 1980s, we brought a jumbo jar of peanut butter from home because we knew it wasn’t readily available in France.  We wanted our small daughters to have a familiar food to eat while we otherwise attempted to live like Parisians.  I can still see myself in our tiny Paris apartment, spreading peanut butter on scores of French biscotti so our unfamiliar surroundings would feel a little more like home.

Like almost everything I’ve done (and still do) for my daughters, it was worth it.

Thinking about peanut butter has, not surprisingly, made me want some.  I’m ready to munch on a PB sandwich right this minute.  Want to join me?