La Passeggiata

The high point of the day for most of us at the Fondazione, as well as for the inhabitants of the town of Bogliasco, is its famous passeggiata a mare. The passeggiata as a phenomenon means two things: going for a stroll, an activity typical of most Mediterranean cities, and the place along which one strolls, in this case, a boardwalk made of narrow bricks laid out in a herringbone pattern (to protect against slipping in this very rainy climate), alongside a stretch of sea called Golfo Paradiso.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-5I’ve taken this walk every day since we arrived here, and I probably will continue (given my daily consumption of pasta and grissini), and I’ve been cataloguing the population, trying to decide what is distinctive. Dog walkers and runners are not. Nor are women pushing strollers, or mothers (often grandmas) urging toddlers to get a move on, couples, men or women in pairs, tourists with backpacks. What is most striking to me, though, but again it’s not so much an artifact of this tiny town on the outskirts of Genoa, is an Italian look (the French come close, but this is a bit more specific). The most interesting specimen is the well-dressed, middle-class, retired man.

Now what I would like to have put here is a picture of this elegant creature wearing a three-quarter length jacket, a cleverly knotted wool scarf, pants with a crease (even if they happen to be jeans), slender shoes, often made of brown suede. I have not yet figured out a way to take his picture discreetly, but believe me he exists, often sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper in the sun. At the risk of making an invidious comparison, I can’t help wishing Sandy would model himself on one of these exemplars of masculine dress, but it is highly unlikely (think about it, brown suede shoes on the promenade along Riverside Drive?).

Although by definition the passeggiata is about walking, this one is also designed for sitting and contemplating the sea; and also sitting (waiting for customers) and selling: the familiar stock of African street vendors (here, maybe Nigerian)—inexpensive pocket books, wallets, and small paintings.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-9 (1)And there are invitations to sit, my favorite this café where I’ve succeeded in ordering the equivalent of a bone-dry, superfoamy cappuccino delivered in a real cup and, mercifully, in no way reminiscent of Starbucks. Standing on line in my neighborhood branch, waiting for a so-called grande, seems a distant memory. When I dip my focaccia (speciality of Genoa) in the foam, looking out at the water, still or agitated, and in the distance, the snow-capped mountains on the horizon, it has the opposite effect of a madeleine—I remember nothing (as Nora Ephron wonderfully said, writing of old age).

It’s all very well, you may say, but didn’t I come here to work? Amazingly, despite the morning passeggiata and the afternoon stroll into town, I am working steadily, if not always happily.

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I’m doing daily battle with my copyedited ms. and cringing at my lack of talent for creating dialogue that doesn’t sound wooden and stilted (I will not give any examples, and can only hope I’ve deleted the worst ones).

Monday was Passover, and instead of attending my cousin’s Seder I went into Genoa with a small group of fellows and heard a concert in a monastery. I confess it felt weird, as we sat there shivering in our down jackets, listening to an orchestra of young people play mainly 17th and 18th century works for strings, to be spending Passover in the company of suffering Jesus on the walls and ceilings. But it is Italy, after all, and I gather that there are many processions to come (more crucifixions), as Pasqua unfolds (as I write, it’s Maundy Thursday, and one will take place in town tonight).

It’s also pouring down rain.

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Bogliasco

After a long, long plane trip—including 3 hours sitting in the plane on the ground at JFK as we waited for de-icing, and 4 hours in Roissy airport because we had missed our connection to Genoa (at least we got an economy meal voucher—economy meant literally, alas)—we finally arrived at Bogliasco, the location of my working paradise for the next 30 days. That oxymoron is also a challenge: can I get any writing done in such a beautiful setting?

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My fellowship project for this precious residency at Bogliasco was to continue work on the “feminist friendship archive” I’ve been developing , and I hope to do that.

I am mesmerized now, for instance, by the following, daunting passage in Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. It’s the moment when 10-year-old Simone meets a new classmate Zaza, the childhood friend whose death will close this first installment of Beauvoir’s four-volume autobiography:

I needed her presence to realize how much I needed her. This was a blinding revelation. All at once, conventions, routines, and the careful categorizing of emotions were swept away and I was overwhelmed by a flood of feeling that had no place in any code. I allowed myself to be uplifted by that wave of joy which went mounting inside me, as violent and fresh as a waterfalling cataract, as naked, beautiful, and bare as a granite cliff.

I can’t say that I have ever experienced that violence in discovering a friend, but I am fascinated by its erotics and what it might mean in the evolving emotional shape of Beauvoir’s life.

A charming photograph of the two friends as young women appears on the cover of the fairly recent publication of Zaza’s letters and notebooks that I’m about to plunge into in order to read the other (equally passionate) side of their poignant story.

zaza

At the same time, just before I left New York for Italy, I received the copyedited manuscript of my new memoir, Breathless, due very soon.

And so I find myself happily torn between these two projects. Where to begin?

Solution, since the sun has miraculously appeared: go for a walk by the sea.

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The Conversant

A few years ago, when Jeff Williams was the editor of the Minnesota Review, he interviewed me about my journey as a feminist critic. Recently, Andy Fitch, founder and editor of The Conversant, was kind enough to republish the interview in his innovative monthly journal that features interview-based projects, and other modes of what he calls “embodied inquiry.”

I was, of course, pleased to have the interview reemerge in this fresh and interesting venue. I’m especially pleased that the idea of revisiting feminist history does not seem completely out of date, though I count myself a relic of a certain second-wave moment— aspirational and transformative for me and for a generation of women in the academy. And then, it’s always a pleasure to chat with the canny and agile Jeff Williams, even well after the fact.

Read the interview here.

 

Girls Write Now

This past Saturday, I took myself down to the journalism workshop at Girls Write Now. This month’s topic was travel writing. Since I like to travel and report about my adventures abroad, I thought I might get some tips from an expert. In this case the craft talk was given by Heidi Mitchell, a journalist and editor based in New York, who, as her bio puts it, is “on a plane once a month.” I hope that some of what I learned will help me focus my travel writing–or rather, the travel writing part of my blogs and memoir.

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In the discussion period, a question was asked about the differences between memoir and journalism. How does each genre balance the role of self and setting? In memoir, Kate Trebuss, a mentor suggested, the setting functions as a lens for the self, in journalism, the self provides the lens or frame for the setting. I found that an extremely apt distinction, and also an excellent description of what I try to do in my Paris memoir, Breathless: An American Girl in Paris, where the city recomposes the character who is myself in unexpected ways.

Jewish Book Week

I’m just back from Jewish Book Week in London,  a city I now love the way I loved Paris when I first lived there—that feeling of everything to discover, that naïve and dopey conviction that everything is so much more wonderful there, especially everything old and literary.

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The streets are dotted with blue plaques (850 of them) on the walls of buildings, indicating the years of residence of famous writers and artists, and otherwise famous people.

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Here’s one for Ezra Pound I happened to stumble on my first morning walk. The blue plaque that generates countless pilgrimages—mine on another occasion—is the one affixed to Sylvia Plath’s house.

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Even the generic Whole Foods displays look more interesting in London, with local blue eggs on offer.

English friends, less amused, complained about the mountains of fruit piled up at the entrance to the store. “So much waste!”

Jewish Book Week was all what I hoped it would be— a literary festival, literary but not in an academic mode, and not only about books. Located in a new venue at Kings Place, the event included many foreign participants, some young and just becoming known, others quite famous. My panel, moderated by journalist Henrietta Foster, had me paired with Orlando Figes, a well-known Russian historian.  I suspected (correctly) that everyone in the Sunday morning audience (except for a few friends of mine who were kind enough to attend) had come for him, but I managed to survive as an underdog. At the book signing, several people told me they had family stories similar to those in What They Saved, and I was thrilled, as I always am when that connection is made. I love sharing a generational history.

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The day after the festival, I crossed the bridge to the South bank and was delighted to see the announcement for another exciting festival under a rather different sign: “Women of the World Festival,” with a roster of fabulous names. It began, alas, the day I was leaving.