Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bastille Day Meditations

At a time when the Eurozone is fraught with stress, Iran has cut a nuclear deal with the West, China's markets are tanking, a Serb has defended his Wimbledon title with force and his character with a healthy dose of small-town charm, a new pentaquark particle has been discovered, and the Americans are sending a spacecraft alongside a planet so far away that it only circles the sun once every 250 years, Bastille Day arrives—and none too soon.

Unlike the slightly frantic and explosion-centered Fourth of July, Bastille Day has become a more broadly international, non-religious, open-ended celebration of personal liberty, artistic expression, social indulgence, and community values—all the things that make civilized living worthwhile.

Though their political clout has diminished considerably since the nineteenth century, the French maintain a certain cachet as a culture in which nature, life, and work sit in easy harmony with one another.

At the warehouse where I used to work,  members of the receiving department used to celebrate Bastille Day with strong, fresh-roasted coffee, croissants, and marmalade. Year in and year out, we would invite someone from another department—invariably a woman who could speak French—to recite a poem by Apollinaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, or some other deranged poet. Those days are long gone, but I can nevertheless offer a reading of my own, chosen less for substance (I don't know French) than for brevity.

Le Dromadaire
Avec ses quatre dromadaires
Don Pedro d' Alfaroubeira
Courut le monde et 'ladmira.
Il fit ce que je voudrais faire
Si j'avais quatre dromadaires.

We missed the Bastille Day parties in town this year, but on Sunday evening we wandered down with friends to the Dakota on Nicollet Mall to listen to the South Side Aces play the sprightly tunes of Creole jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet.

Tonight will be a quiet celebration: lamb chops on the grill along with grilled red peppers, carrots, and onions, and maybe a bottle of cheap Cote du Rhone. On the turntable? Accordionist Richard Galliano's new duo album, La Vie en Rose, with guitarist Sylvain Luc.

It's a nice album, but if it starts to sound a little too French, we can turn to a CD I picked up today at the library for a dollar—Art of Love: the Music of Machaut. The artist, Robert Sadin, was unfamiliar to me but the CD had been shelved in the "jazz" category. Listening to it on the way home from the library, it struck me as neither jazz nor Machaut, but some sort of African hodgepodge. Yet I suspect a lot of thought went into the arrangements. Glancing at the liner notes Sadin is quoted as saying: "Recent studies suggest that the performing style of the late fourteenth century was not as pristine or as 'classical' as once was believed. In any case, we were looking for a far-reaching, free-form approach to the music." Should be interesting.

I had gone to the library to pick up a book I'd requested, Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet. The introduction was by James Salter, who died recently, and as I read it I came upon a wonderful, and typically Salter-esque phrase. He's describing what it's like to visit Bonnet's 40,000-volume library:

"You recognize, with a kind of terrible joy, all that you haven't read and that you would like to read. Titles and names strike what can only be called chords of desire."

You can probably tell that I'm not getting much done today. But as a woman in Arles once told me, "aujourd'hui personne travail." I think it's the only French sentence I ever understood, and there's a story behind it, but I don't have time to tell it now.

The chipmunks are enjoying the ripening berries on the dogwood outside the bedroom window. And four full-grown turkeys continue to pass by regularly out on the front lawn. Today they remind me of Porthos, Athos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan.

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