That very same summer we visited Sweden and John got to know some of my country, my family and my friends.
First of all we made a very nice stop in Lund with Gun and Per for John to get to know my sister and her family, and of course also a bit of Skåne, the southernmost province in Sweden where I grew up.. Per is an excellent guide of his beautiful Skåne and John loved it.
After that, we traveled in my little Renault 4L to Mother’s country house in southern Småland, given to her by my grandparents. It’s in a gorgeous region of Småland with vast forests and lakes. We went swimming with Arne in the beautiful lake Mien where the water is so clean you can drink it. Arne was the main cook that evening, and he had prepared his (and ours too) favorite dish which was sweetbreads, always called ris de veau by us. Mother had prepared a Swedish specialty, freshly dug up potatoes, boiled with dill and eaten with butter usually.
The very best way of eating Swedish new potatoes though is with sour cream, chives and salted herring — just salted, no sugar like in matje herring, which is something totally different. The herring has been salted in barrels for several days, but this delicacy is getting ever more rare, in Sweden at least. In Norway and Iceland I do believe it still subsists. The herring is put in salt in the barrels out at sea. You usually have to desalt it in water for a few hours before eating it.
Our odyssey went on to Stockholm this first time, since I have friends there.
However, Stockholm is by no means to be missed. It is a wonderfully beautiful city, that sits on several islands on Lake Mälaren. That is, mainly the old town and a few other islands, but of course the larger parts of the city are on the mainland north and south of the lake. (More about Stockholm in Chapter 21 – Stockholm)
However, a big city can not possibly be compared to a small village alongside a little river in the deep pine forests of Bergslagen (meaning the law of the mountains, and this was once a rich mining area), one of the most gorgeous regions in Sweden. In my little Renault 4L, we drove from Stockholm to a little village in Bergslagen where I had friends, a lovely little nook of the world that we have returned to many memorable times.
The little village I know the best in this area is Löa and it’s a dream. Ever since the 60s I always had friends in this little nook of the world (and I still do), very much an artists colony for people from all over the country and even from the other side of the Atlantic. So this was our first visit together to friends in Löa and many many things have changed since then. But Löa still remains the home for bohemians and artists.
At the time I had three friends in Löa who were movie makers. One of them was Inger who made dramatic movies for Swedish television and became so highly regarded that she was hailed as a new Ingmar Bergman. That may have been a bit exaggerated, but they were definitely works of art. Inger, retired now, had a distinct flair for drama, style, the Swedish past and the perfect music to accompany her movies.
Inger’s masterpiece was no doubt Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which she made as a movie that got the Prix Italia in 1995. As a pure coincidence it had its world pre-premiere in Lyon after we had moved there, in a small salle in the Opera building. So we were there with the press, the celebrities and the main actors and singers. Inger introduced us to Barbara Hendricks, one of our favorite sopranos. We shook hands while seeing her look above our heads at the press. She seems like a wonderful woman and we didn’t hold it against her.
Two other friends, Lars and Nina, separately made nature documentaries, Lars from the Arctic, polar bears, Svalbard (part of which is Spitsbergen) and Greenland – Nina ecological documentaries about the clear water in Swedish rivers and streams being polluted, about old people being abandoned in their loneliness and excellent community-geared, socially-conscious movies. Nina is originally from Stockholm. Lars grew up in Löa and he has actually been called the man who put the village on the map. He has made documentaries for BBC and also contributed to National Geographic. His photography from the Arctic and its animals is probably unequaled.
This first time in Löa for John, my old friend Ragnhild who was then still married to Lennart had incredibly delicious, homemade gravad lax (marinated salmon, as it translates). Wonderful friends from Dalarnan two artists, Gerd and Göran just a few kilometers north of Löa, had brought the most exquisite Swedish new potatoes, homegrown of course. We had a fabulous good Swedish meal and it was such great news that Gerd and Göran had come
About ten years later we went back to Bergslagen with our very special French friends Jean and Danièle , their son, Olivier and also the son of other friends of ours, François.
This time marriages had changed around quite a bit. Nina was now married to Lars, who had previously been married to Inger, the televison movie maker who kept the name Åby.
Our friends were incredibly generous. Nina lent us a house, Inger lent us a canoe, Lennart and second wife, Maria, had the big welcoming party and much more. We were invited over to Nina’s big house several times, to Inger’s gorgeous house on Glatjärn and to Ragnhild and her second husband Karl-Bertil in their summer house on a lake in Kopparberg, north of Löa, on a lake with a sauna. And of course there was a wonderful dinner. At Nina’s place we watched several of her movies about ecology and Lars’ movies on polar bears and the Arctic.
For all their generosity, we invited them for dinner at the one good local restaurant, Värdshuset Älgen (The Moose Inn). Before setting out on our way back to Löa, Nina warned us about police controls. She said we must take la route du cognac which was never checked, a little back-road that few people ever traveled on.
Well, goodbye to Sweden for this time and to incredibly beautiful Löa, a paradise on earth, with friends who are always ready to receive us, Nina and my old friend, Lennart, who lend us little houses or rooms and who are generally so hospitable that we will never forget.
Christian, a colleague of John’s from Collège de France, invited us and several other people who worked at the Collège in different capacities to his regularly rented summer house in Anthéor on la Côte between Cannes and Saint-Raphaël. That’s the expensive part of la Côte, but Anthéor itself is not up among the jet-set places, like Saint-Tropez or Cannes. It has grown enormously though since we were there in 1971.
On our way down to la Côte, we of course drove around a good number of see-worthy places. Trust John for sightseeing – he has it all worked out, and he knows where the beautiful places are. From Clermond-Ferrand in le Centre we drove through the département Puy de Dôme, with its famous extinct volcano that gave its name to the department. We drove through Auvergne, a gorgeous countryside with the most beautiful Romanesque churches, possibly in all of Europe and Orcival probably at the top. Making statements like that is, needless to say, very risky and right away It brings to my mind the Cathedral in my beloved university town, Lund, a masterpiece of Romanesque art. I may also be biased if I put Lund Cathedral at the very top.
We got to the medieval town of Sarlat in Dordogne, well worth seeing; les grottes des Eyzies with the best-known prehistoric cave paintings that you can still see today. Those cave paintings are amazingly beautiful works of art, but it was far too dark inside to take pictures. No flash allowed of course.
The most famous caves for prehistoric painting, les Grottes de Lascaux are closed for tourists and what you can see today is replicas in a different site 200 meters away from the original site, but incredibly well made. The hordes of tourists who flocked to Lascaux damaged the paintings through their breathing, and the caves had to be closed.1
We drove along les Gorges du Tarn where, unforgettably, Siv got ‘moist palms’ because we were driving on narrow roads at the very edge of steep cliffs.
We have been to other canyons in France since then and I do believe I’ve gotten over that kind of angoisse I felt at the time. We were driving my little Renault 4L of course and I didn’t quite know what an excellent driver John is.
We went through so many places that I had or had not seen before that it’s impossible to include them all here. We went through Nîmes with its arena (les arènes de Nîmes), which I knew well and where I had even seen a corrida.
That was not my fault. I was teaching French in a Swedish summer school in Montpellier in 1960, and the corrida was on the program. It was a fiesta in the entire town though and quite memorable, even though I shuddered at the cruelty of the ‘game’.
John and I also went through Marseille and admired le vieux port, which I at least had never seen before. We then went on to Cassis, right close by to the east of Marseille for a wonderful dinner in one of the few little charming fishing villages that are left on la Côte. Someone had recommend Cassis to us, and we have been back a couple of times after that, first with John’s parents and then with my sister Gun. She did research work on malignant melanoma one semester in Marseille and we toured the coastal part of Provence together that Easter in 1981. I remember the year because I still had a leg in a cast after a ski accident in Alpe-d’Huez.
In Anthéor, there were, besides Christian himself who had lent John and me his own bedroom, the oh-so-funny practical-joke couple Stratis, the Greek, and his wife Lucille, Marie-Gen who worked with the bubble chambers at the Collège de France. (Oh days long gone by) and who not much later married Pierre, an excellent physicist who is still at Collège de France, unless he is retired. They now have grown-up children, and may even be grandparents. We see them on and off whenever there is a big occasion at the Centre de Calcul here in Lyon, such as John’s retirement party.
And there was Claire-Jeanne, the very good arty photographer who somewhat condescendingly referred to the kind of photos John and I take as postcard pictures. There was another bachelor too whose name I don’t remember and whom I obviously never got to know too well. Wait, it’s coming back to me. He was Hans, a German friend of Christian’s, presumably a physicist.
Funny Stratis amused himself in the strangest ways. Once by throwing my black hat into the sea, never to be retrieved of course. Hilarious. Another time he and Lucille poured water over me and I think also John as we were sitting below their bedroom window.
We took turns cooking, but more often than not we ate at a restaurant down the road, or actually up on a cliff, with a gorgeous view over the Mediterranean.
Les Flots bleus was the name of this hotel-restaurant, which became our standard eating place. It had a view over the beach and bay of Antheor, with the Mediterranean in the background.
We ate lots of seafood of course and omelette norvégienne was our favorite desert. It’s hot outside ans still cold ice-cream inside. Meringue like on the outside and flambé.
John and I made a trip tp Cannes one day, mostly to do something a bit different. I had passed through it once on my way somewhere, probably when I spent a pretty boring summer in Saint-Raphaël, but Cannes is worth seeing.
The luxury is too much, too overwhelming, and I definitely prefer Nice which has a ‘real town’ behind the façades with la Promenade des Anglais, the exotic-looking palm trees, the blue Mediterranean and white yachts. Nice is a town where real people live, and where it’s pleasant to walk around in the shade among the old houses on a hot day, in little streets far away from the flashy seafront.
All things come to an end and after the school year 70-71 was over, and the summer, I had to return to my teaching job in Westchester. John was spending another year at the Collège de France.
The year we spent on different continents we wrote frequent letters. The funny thing was that we were reading the same books, partly, and discussing Le Mythe de Sisyphe and other books by Albert Camus, the most negative author I can imagine, unless it would be Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus’ more commonly read L’Etranger is far more depressing than maybe most people realize. ‘Le héros absurde fait face à l’absurdité de la vie.’
In Le Mythe de Sisyphe Camus is introducing the expression ‘faire le saut’. I have forgotten what exactly he means by that, but I remember being thrilled by it at the time I was reading the book. What it means to me today is making the leap from superstition, the domination of a clique of witch doctors in whatever religion you refer to, from the land of the unseeing masses to a state of mind where you accept the absence of a hand to hold on to. Your blinders are gone and there is nobody to go to for judgement or for advice, for comfort or for forgiveness. People will certainly react very differently if they come to this stark conclusion, but I find it a relief to know that there is no punishing or rewarding God, no salvation, no judgement. I alone am responsible for what I do and I alone can make something liveable out of my life.
The famous first sentence of L’Etranger sets the tone for the rest of the book. Meursault, the Stranger, says
“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” 2
Just before he’s going to be executed (for having killed an Arab on the beach, without having the slightest idea why he did it – the sun was in his eyes, was all he could say), the chaplain has been seeing him and told him that he would pray for him: Meursault became furious and insulted the chaplain.
“Comme si cette grande colère m’avait purgé du mal, vidé d’espoir, devant cette nuit chargée de signes et d’étoiles, je m’ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde.” 3
I even read the book with an advanced French class at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester, New York, simply because they were so very eager to read it. I remember particularly discussing with the students the meaning of the last words on the very last page:
“ Pour que tout soit consommé, pour que je me sente moins seul, il me restait à souhaiter qu’il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon exécution et qu’ils m’accueillent avec des cris de haine. ” – 4
Though we never came to any conclusion, my students had many interesting interpretations.
With another class that same year we read La Symphonie Pastorale by André Gide. Also a sad book, but far less so. After finishing the book where le pasteur takes Gertrude, the young blind girl, to a concert in Neuchâtel, she manages to ‘see’ colors by comparing them to the various instruments. When thinking of the immense pleasure Gertrude takes in this concert, I realized that possibly most of my students had never heard La Symphonie Pastorale and so I wanted to spend a class having them listen to it. I found somewhat to my surprise that I did not have the record. So what do I do? I called up John in Paris and said ‘Listen, I want to play La Symphonie Pastorale to my students. We’ve just finished reading the book in class. Can you recommend a good recording?’ John said without a moment’s hesitation: Fritz Reiner.and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Fritz Reiner was already dead by then, but his music most certainly was not.
I set aside a class for the symphony and the students loved it. Most of them did indeed not know it, and it was enormously appreciated.
I have never stopped being amused, and impressed, by the way John answered without a second’s hesitation. Fritz Reiner’s recording is the one we still have today, only on a CD of course.
John came over for Christmas and besides going to the Metropolitan Opera to see the only opera I’d managed to get tickets for, Samson and Delilah (or Samson et Dalila as my program says) by Saint-Saëns, we of course went to Orlando, Florida.
We were expected by John’s family to spend Christmas with them. I was very anxious to make a favorable impression, so I went to George Jensen in the City to buy a gorgeous platter in brushed stainless steel with a tray of teak inside to cut a roast on. I sent it ahead by mail for some reason (it was heavy, for one thing) and when we arrived they had already opened it and thanked me profusely for the very nice present. I met John’s entire family, except for a couple of aunts in Ohio. His sister was down from North Carolina with her first baby child, a daughter called Neall, less than a year old.
Grandma O’Neall may well have been my favorite. An adorable old lady who didn’t make a fuss about our not being married and still sharing a bedroom. I saw her many more times when she still lived alone in her house, also in Orlando, and later when she was in a hospital in Jacksonville where her son-in-law, Uncle Larry, was a cardiologist.
That same year I flew over to Paris one Easter vacation by a charter flight, which I would live to regret. (When I went to London to get my flight back, in John’s company – the true gentleman – I found that the charter company no longer existed and I had to buy a regular ticket for the flight back home.)
That was most likely the time I really got to know Roberto. I remember vividly having lunch at a little restaurant across from Collège de France in rue des Ecoles, Chez La Brune they called it, and the people from the Collège used to eat there quite regularly. (“On se verra chez la Brune à midi.”) And that’s where Roberto really got into the picture. I was asking myself who this short dark and quite handsome young man was who spoke with such an atrocious Spanish accent that I thought I would never learn to understand him. But things do change. As soon as we got back to Paris (I’m getting ahead of my story here), Roberto became a member of the family with our dog Puppy and our adorable Mélisande. I soon forgot that there had ever been a time when I found Roberto difficult to understand.
- By 1955, the carbon dioxide, heat, humidity, and other contaminants produced by 1,200 visitors per day had visibly damaged the paintings and introduced lichen on the walls. The cave was closed to the public in 1963 to preserve the art. (Wikipedia) ↩
- “Today Mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” ↩
- “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; in that night alive with signs and stars, for the first time I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” ↩
- “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with howls of execration.” – Translations by Esther Lombardi ↩