At eighteen, I was aware that such a woman existed. I had seen pictures, hair loose and swingy or clipped in a hasty chignon. And the shoes—strappy slides, with a heel. But I met her in the flesh one July afternoon at her hillside villa in Nice. She was a Persian beauty in her 40’s named Shirin, and in the summer of 1979 she was my hostess on the Cote d’Azur.
Five hundred years ago, when Christopher Columbus sailed into the port of Barcelona with a few sacks of cacao beans, Europeans had never seen or tasted anything quite like them. A drink made of the crushed beans, sugar, and spices became a favorite of the Spanish court, and two centuries later all of Europe had surrendered to the pleasures of chocolate mania.
For a while Spain was a major producer, opening one of the world’s first facilities for transforming liquid chocolate into solid. But by the 19th century, countries such as Switzerland, Belgium, England, and Holland had surpassed it with more sophisticated technologies and, ultimately, better distribution to the rest of the world. Spanish chocolate-making carried on, small and artisanal, but its reputation and international profile languished for almost two centuries. These days Spain is again emerging as an innovator in the industry it created, coinciding with its ascendancy in architecture, design, and gastronomy.
Town & Country September 2011, Social Graces
“Watch out for the men,” the travel agent cautioned before I left for Greece. I was 12 and already five-foot-nine, with all the curves of a tent pole. It was first ever trip to Europe. And as my mother and I shopped for a gold charm on Crete, a passing man called out, “How much for you and your sister?” My mother thought it was hilarious. I was thoroughly repulsed.
When did you first know you were a traveler?
I was five when I first took an airplane from Boston to Tucson. My three sisters and I were dressed in matching dresses and white gloves. The planning, the packing, the trip to the airport – a journey felt momentous and significant. It still does.
What’s one place that has moved you or changed you in a significant way?
This is a true story. When the great conductor Arturo Toscanini first saw the Grand Canyon, he started clapping. I get it – it’s not worth even wasting your breath on a triviality like “Wow!” Morning, evening, north rim, south rim, I’ve never been jolted, silenced, convulsed and healed like at the Grand Canyon. You do wonder what Coronado and his merry band had to say to each other when they stumbled upon this, instead of gold for Spain. Arizona, in spite of its weird and sometimes distressing political landscape, is a staggeringly beautiful state. I think they have the lock on suck-your-breath-away places in this country and maybe anywhere on earth.
Town & Country, November 2011
My article on the fascinating Patricia Kluge and the Trump family’s controversial purchase of her Virginia winery is in the November issue of Town & Country. My reporting included a trip on the Trump helicopter with Eric, who now runs the vineyard.
In the foyer of the model home she now rents, on the edge of 1200-acre Charlottesville estate she once owned, Patricia Kluge yanks off muddy Wellies and slips on a pair of black Belgian loafers. Her dogs shuffle underfoot, angling for a belly rub. Kluge is still stunning at 63, and her green eyes give frequent sparks indicating amusement or impatience, especially in the presence of a journalist. “Everything about me has been said before,” she says, with a wary glance. “And not always correctly.
Read the whole article here.
During a classroom visit at Parent’s Weekend at my daughter’s school, I was stunned and delighted to see the kids in freshman English reading Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart. They were dissecting passages, underlining the various authorial devices, executing a critical read of this story about village life and British colonial rule in Nigeria. They looked upon the book as literature and language, as fourteen year-olds should do. But it’s the history contained in the narrative – the actual context – that made me want to read it again, after many years.
The day before Parent’s day, I had returned from two weeks in Rwanda. so Africa was very much on the jetlagged brain. It wasn’t my first trip there, but I went deep this time, and splurged on a driver (but not really hotels) to ferry me to all corners of the tiny country, while doing some consulting for a small and brave NGO. To prepare for my trip I re-read Adam Hochschild’s mindblowing book about the Belgian conquest/rape of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost. It reads like a novel, but every word of it is true.
While in the town of Gisenyi, I walked the short distance to the Congo border, with the country’s brutal and sometimes incomprehensible history (so recently brought to life for me by Hochschild) in mind. I wanted to cross over to Goma for the afternoon, but the charge for a visa recently went up to $300. Cash. The volcano, Nyiragongo, hovers menacingly over the city it destroyed in 2002. At night, it’s even more beautiful and terrifying, as it glows red, spewing fire into the sky.
The walk to the border provides lots of quaint architectural reminders of the region’s German, then Belgian-dominated past – rambling stucco or wood houses, all in European style. I don’t know who lives there now – Europeans, wealthy Rwandans, but they are quite beautiful, and well-preserved. It’s a country where 92 per cent of the population is Catholic or Protestant, and where most people in Kigali speak French. Colonial history lingers everywhere; it’s inescapable.
Days later, back home, while flipping through my daughter’s book in her classroom, I came across this passage, written in 1958 about characters in 1890’s Nigeria:
“We have heard stories about white men who made the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, but no one thought the stories were true.”
It’s still impossible to wrap the head around. – the mingling of such disparate cultures, the wholesale replacement of local sovereignty, the forced introduction of the Christian god. But it’s important to be reminded – in fiction and in non-fiction – of a history that, unless you’re in Africa, is often overlooked.
How can I travel when there’s so much going on at home? People frequently ask me that question, how do I make it work – just pick up and go? Doesn’t my home life suffer? Yes, for a while, and no. But if I didn’t move once in a while, everything would really fall apart, especially now that my children are out of the house – still in school – but nevertheless launched. It helps that I’m a writer and an assignment can get me out of town for a while. But any solo voyage is good for the head.
We didn’t travel too exotically with the kids when they were young, but still, we hit the road when we could afford to. When my son was a year and a half, my husband was working on a giant outdoor sculpture in the south of France, and the patron, I guess you’d call him, invited us to stay in his wild, gated James Bond house. We took the baby along, with the port-a-crib, and the bottles and all that other paraphernalia that constituted our traveling circus. We have a lot of lovely photos of him (my son…) running through fields of lavender, or on the beach at St. Tropez in a sun hat, images that will surely be brandished to his great embarrassment at some future celebration. I was jealous of the easy going mothers (not usually Americans, I have to say) who – topless – could juggle diaper bags with a glass of rosé and four passports and not drag themselves to bed weeping with fatigue. The mothers who didn’t care that juice spilled all over them or that their kids’ bottoms were getting toasted by the sun.
I tended to feel, after the exhaustion of every day, that these travels were possibly more of a vanity project for me. That the photographs are beautiful, blown up on the wall, but that the memories were only mine (and my husband’s) to keep. I was always delighted to get home, and found plenty of worthy photo opportunities there, too.
Still, I didn’t learn much, or quickly, so every time we could travel, we did. We took them to Paris to see our old haunts (where my daughter nearly died from septicemia), and for a long drive out west (where, in my fruitless search for authentic diners, we subsisted on an artery-destroying diet of Taco Bell, Carl’s Junior, and close to Monument Valley, all variations of Frito pie.)
We loved the time together, without the schedule bearing down on us. And that’s the part I remember – my tiny daughter and I scrunched together in a bed at the Holiday Inn Express in Barstow, California, the boys in the other one, and how we woke up that morning and drove across the desert, ending up at a comfy hotel in Santa Monica.
But again, I was glad to head home.
My kids are bigger and older, and though we travel together when we can, once a year or so, it’s different now. We talk and read and enjoy long meals together. We don’t force a transfer of our life to some inconvenient place, because we’re a nimble unit now. But I’m even more agile alone and I like to travel that way. I like soup and a cold beer for dinner, if that’s all I want. I enjoy travelling light. I suppose I always have.
I’m not at all adventurous and I’m pretty chicken sh– about risk taking, too. I’m not a great white hunter type, I don’t camp out in the desert or take boat rides across blackened lakes just for the thrill of it. But I do like solitude and anonymity. I enjoy carrying a small bag with the essentials (plus one dressy outfit, just in case). When I compartmentalize my belongings, it serves to compartmentalize me, as well. All of me is boiled down to its elements – one woman, two feet, one thinking brain, my one tiny existence to leave for a while and reflect upon. Okay, maybe four pair of shoes, but still.
So, in answer to people’s questions, travel is easy. Press “Purchase Ticket Now,” put it on the credit card. That’s all it takes. Home is alluring from a distance, and life is here when I get back and it’s always better than when I left. So, maybe what I like about travel is the moment I realize (and I do every time) that while I’ve been gone, nothing – and everything – has changed.
When I travel alone, my preference is to keep it that way. I’m not really one for chatting people up in hotel bars or for reeling out my anecdotes or listening to theirs. Which is why my heart sank, a few weeks ago, when a man entered my chamber just as the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg departed the station.
Read the story about my return to the magical restaurant in Paris where I was married in Paris…..here.
Since 1784, Le Grand Véfour has occupied the northwest corner of the Jardins du Palais Royal in Paris. The restaurant seems forever paired with the words “venerable institution” because of the roster of French luminaries — from Napoleon to Victor Hugo to Jean-Paul Sartre – who have warmed its velvet banquettes over the years. And then there’s me. One September afternoon twenty years ago, I had my wedding dinner there.
In the September issue of Town & Country, I wrote a piece for the Social Graces column about sex scandals, American and French – mostly the difference in their aftermaths – and how they play out in the public. I think (and have written) a lot about fidelity and infidelity, and remain fascinated by how different cultures view every aspect of the institution of marriage. I was therefore not at all stunned by the extremely unapologetic tone DSK took in yesterday’s interview on French television (with the anchorwoman Claire Chazal, a friend of his wife Anne Sinclair’s). Yes, he called his transgression a “moral failing”, but he didn’t express any empathy for Ms. Diallo, his once-alleged victim (as an American counterpart would likely do, even while defending himself). These were rape charges, not a mere affair, and he faces more assault charges at home. He expected his wife to assert his innocence, and she did. Perhaps it’s easy to support your man if the crime he’s accused of is not just a moral one.
Several hours later, I watched the fictional take on CBS’s The Good Wife – which I saw shortly after Julianna Marguiles won an Emmy for her portrayal of the wronged political wife – bitter, betrayed, critically wounded by the lacerations her husband’s infidelity caused her.
Her husband, incarcerated Chicago State’s Attorney Peter Florrick, is portrayed with glorious hubris by Chris Noth. “I’ve looked in the mirror, and what I’ve seen, I didn’t like,” he says in an early episode, the gleam of ambition still clouding his vision while his reputation manager looks on approvingly. As in real life, his family’s humiliation is palpable, and public.
In his 1879 biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer Henry James praised The Scarlet Letter as the finest piece of literary writing yet to issue from the United States. “It belongs to the soil, the air, it came out of the very heart of New England,” wrote James about the novel, the tale of Hester Prynne’s adulterous hook-up with Dimmesdale, the powerful Puritan minister, and the fall-out they both endured. “The thing was absolutely American.”
You can say that again. Over one hundred fifty years later, Hawthorne’s masterpiece still defines our tropes towards judging those forbidden acts of extra-marital passion – we who are surprised it still happens. Not only does the sanctimonious crowd scorn Hester, who is forced to bear the infamy all by herself by wearing an embroidered A morning, noon and night for seven years. But when Dimmesdale addresses the crowd to declare the truth about his illicit act of carnal desire, he curses it along with himself, despite the life of virtue the puritanical code had cut out for him. There was nothing left for him to do, but perish on the spot.
Sound familiar? Superimpose Representative Weiner above the village square, or Arnold Schwarzenegger before the local clergymen, or Tiger Woods prostrate before the townspeople for Dimmesdale when he launches America’s first press conference confession. “People of New England!” he says, before revealing the stigma that burns his chest, his dirty little secret. The sex scandal remains the same, as does the sin, the anguish and, although Dimmesdale died before he could rehab in the Utah desert, so does the repentance. And sometimes – both here and in Europe – arrogance.
My fellow women-travelers, on, what else?
What must-have item is in your carry-on?
A lightweight down blanket that folds up small enough to fit into my purse. I freeze on planes! I also pack Wisp toothbrushes, fresh underwear, Dermagor face cream and a pair of high heels so I can ditch my sensible travel shoes the moment I arrive. —Marcia DeSanctis, “Masha”