Paris, je t’aime. More than ever.

Makeshift memorial near the Bataclan concert hall.

Makeshift memorial near the Bataclan concert hall.

“Do you know where you are?” the young woman who stopped me on Paris’ Avenue Parmentier asked, her voice edged with worry. A resident of the neighborhood, she was on her way to her boyfriend’s apartment when armed attackers started firing on nearby restaurants. There were rumors of continued shootings in the Paris area, and she couldn’t understand what I was doing outside.

She asked me again: “Madame, do you know where you are?”

I knew where I was. It just no longer bore any resemblance to the Paris that I know and love. Reporting on the terror attacks, I had rushed over to the city’s 10th and 11th Arrondissements shortly after word got out about explosions at the Stade de France and gunfire at several restaurants and bars.

As I made my way toward the besieged Bataclan concert hall, what struck me most were the empty streets. Off the beaten tourist path, the city’s vibrant and ethnically diverse eastern neighborhoods around Canal Saint-Martin and Place de la République draw a range of fashionable, young creative types. On Friday nights these areas are usually packed with revelers looking to kick off the weekend in the neighborhoods’ numerous bars, restaurants and clubs.

However, last Friday these areas were virtually deserted. Bistro owners hastily locked down their establishments, heavily armed police patrolled the area ordering everyone inside, cordons were set up, and all around me the shrieks of emergency sirens cut through the brisk November night.


Postcard #8: Chateau de la Solitude

The exterior of the Chateau de la Solitude.

The exterior of the Chateau de la Solitude.

I spent Sunday afternoon slinking through the ruins of an abandoned Neo-Gothic chateau on the outskirts of Paris. The Chateau de la Solitude was the former home of the head of a chocolate dynasty, and was briefly a convent and a women’s college before falling to ruin.

Today only a shell remains of the once stately property, but the crumbling interior and the quiet woods that surround it have resulted in a haunting beauty that draws urban explorers, photographers, and the curious.

From Berlin to Warsaw: In the shadow of a wall

An example of foreboding, Soviet-era architecture in Warsaw. Original photo by Martin flickr creative commons.

An example of Soviet-era architecture in Warsaw. Original photo courtesy of Martin, Flickr creative commons.

The following story originally appeared on Link TV’s Global Post Blog in 2009 during my stint as the station’s series blogger. 

I am remembering a talk I had with Danuta Pawlowska, the Polish grandmother of a good friend of mine, in her Warsaw apartment several years ago. A member of the Warsaw resistance during the Nazi occupation, Danuta was closely monitored after the communists took over in the mid-1940s.

She recalled a long gossip-filled phone conversation with a close friend. Two hours into the conversation, a booming male voice suddenly burst through the receiver. “Would you just shut up already?” the man groaned. “How much more of this must I listen to?!”

I had laughed at the time. For a young American with roots in Warsaw, the idea of a government agent listening to a banal chat with a friend was amusing – something fit for a dime store spy thriller.

This disconnect is also apparent in present-day Warsaw. In the city’s meticulously reconstructed Old Town, foreign tourists swarm on souvenir shops to purchase T-shirts and shot glasses, and bursts of bad American pop music filter out of the same fashion chain stores that line Paris’ Rue de Rennes or Copenhagen’s Strøget. The stylish, boisterous students crowding the bars and cafes have no memory of life in pre-1989 Warsaw.

Yet, if you venture outside of the city center, the medieval architecture gives way to monotonous tenements the color of diesel exhaust. Passing by some of these buildings at dusk is an unnerving, somewhat melancholy experience, and I’ll admit that I glanced over my shoulder more than once. For Danuta and millions of others, that reality was life.

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Postcard #7: Back in Paris

The Pantheon on a late-winter evening. © Erin Zaleski 2013

The Pantheon on a late-winter evening. © Erin Zaleski 2013

Once again, I’m here in a Paris beset with mood swings as the city transitions from one season to another. The days are getting longer though, and a few evenings ago the sky had a striking, Maxfield Parish-ness to it as the last of the light faded away.

Warsaw’s cafe nostalgia

I am currently working on a short story partly set in inter-war Warsaw, and found this beautiful compilation of images while doing research.

The music is a slow foxtrot performed by the famous Henryk Gold Orchestra that played in Warsaw’s most well-known nightclubs during the 1930s.

One of Gold’s biggest hits was titled Tęsknota, which is Polish for nostalgia, or longing. Fitting, don’t you think?

My 2012 in Cities

Balloon over the Stockholm waterfront © Erin Zaleski 2012

Berkeley, CA

Davis, CA

Florence, Italy

Gavorrano, Italy

Jönköping, Sweden

Lucca, Italy

Nelson, British Columbia

Oakland, CA

Oslo, Norway

Paris, France

Pisa, Italy

San Francisco, CA

Sienna, Italy

Spokane, WA

Stockholm, Sweden

Södra Sandby, Sweden

Tahoe City, CA

May 2013 bring more adventures to the wanderlusty! Happy New Year, everyone!

Late-autumn reading list

Reading on the shores of the Stockholm archipelago © Erin Zaleski 2012

Fall is almost over, and even back home in the Bay Area the days are short and the fog and rain have settled in. In Stockholm, snow is already blanketing the ground and sunsets at 3 am have become the norm. Bleak, yes. But the last days of autumn are also the perfect time to hunker down with a good book. Here are few I’m currently reading:

The House in France, by Gully Wells                                                       I had lunch with Gully a couple of times back in my post-grad job hunting days and I’ve always enjoyed her pieces in Condé Nast Traveler, so I was excited to check out her first book.  Her writing here is equally frank, funny, and elegant, and her memoir provides a poignant snapshot of the exploits of the intellectual beau monde in Provence and London during the ’60s and ’70s.  Her tale of getting high with Martin Amis at Oxford (during which an old record player meets an unfortunate demise) had me laughing out loud.

Embers, by Sándor Márai                                                                                   I have read this intense, little novel about three times already, and there is something about brooding, autumn days that make me want to pick it up again and lose myself once more in Márai’s powerful prose. Although slender in size, the book covers such weighty themes as friendship, lust, betrayal, and revenge, all set against the backdrop of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver                            Imagine a world without what-ifs. This book about decisions and consequences does precisely that via parallel story lines. Ensconced in a comfortable, albeit predictable live-in relationship, Irina is tempted to kiss a mutual friend during his birthday dinner. The remainder of the novel presents two divergent narratives based on whether she chooses to yield to passion or to loyalty. A graceful meditation on love, fate, and choice, although I am getting the impression that neither destiny yields happiness.

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Postcard #6: In Paris

Autumn light in the Luxembourg Gardens on an October evening. © Erin Zaleski 2012

I finally made it back to Paris after nearly four years of being away.

If I had forgotten how bleak October in Paris can be, the past two weeks  have reminded me.

The morning sky is dark until 8 am and a thick canopy of clouds can linger for days, obscuring the sun and imparting a romantic, melancholy quality to the city the gradually becomes less romantic and more melancholy with each successive gray day. Fortunately, I was so caught up in the intensity of re-immersing myself in the city and reconnecting with old friends that the gloom became an afterthought.

On my last evening, still tipsy from a long, wine-soaked lunch, I stumbled (quite literally) into the Luxembourg Gardens, where the last moments of the day had given way to a blaze of light that was almost jarring.

It was a fitting conclusion to a trip during which dreary moments mingled side by side with florid, intense ones. It was also a reminder that more than two decades since my first trip and after nearly four years away, the city still has the ability to tantalize, seduce and surprise me.

I’ve booked a return trip for the spring. See you there?

Literary Pyrotechnics

“This is the one thing I hope: that she never stopped. I hope when her body couldn’t run any farther she left it behind like everything else that tried to hold her down, she floored the pedal and she went like wildfire, streamed down night freeways with both hands off the wheel and her head back screaming to the sky like a lynx, white lines and green lights whipping away into the dark, her tires inches off the ground and freedom crashing up her spine. I hope every second she could have had came flooding through that cottage like speed wind: ribbons and sea spray, a wedding ring and Chad’s mother crying, sun-wrinkles and gallops through wild red brush, a baby’s first tooth and its shoulder blades like tiny wings in Amsterdam Toronto Dubai; hawthorn flowers spinning through summer air. Daniel’s hair turning gray under high ceilings and the sweet cadences of Abby’s singing. Time works so hard for us, Daniel told me once. I hope those last few minutes worked like hell for her. I hope in that half hour she lived all her million lives.”

~ Tana French, The Likeness (2008)

Wanderlusting for: Slow Traveling in Tuscany

The hillside village of Gavorrano in the afternoon. © Erin Zaleski 2012

Sweden is in the grip of its chilliest, rainiest summer in centuries, and shortly after my arrival in late-May I began pining for Mediterranean heat, sun-baked terraces, and humid evenings laced with ice cream and strapless dresses.

So in July Nordic Lad and I  fled  south to Gavorrano, Italy.

Never heard of it, have you?

Neither had we, which I immediately took as a good sign.

Straddling a steep hillside in southern Tuscany’s Maremma about 25 miles northwest of Grosseto, the medieval mining village is free of grand hotels, menus turisticos, chain stores, and gourmet gelaterias (basic, perfectly tasty gelato is available at the local bar). When the midday sun is at its hottest the main square and nearby roads empty out; the sounds of voices and footsteps replaced with  the buzz of cicadas and the mistral wind barreling over the hills.

It was as middle of nowhere as you could get for Tuscany in July, thrillingly devoid of the summer tourist crush, and with the bonus of the exciting (and alarming) possibility of running into a pack of wild boar after dusk.

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