Archives for January 2020

A Tale of Two Cities – Part 1

Place de la Bastille

The Bastille is long gone, remembered only in the pavers that outline the building walls crossing the square. The city gate to the Faubourg would have been behind the bicycle at left. (Click photos to enlarge.)

I’m reading Charles Dickens’s novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” in French. It is a story of London and Paris before and after the French Revolution. I’m only part way through, and not sure I understand everything that is happening. Here is what I know so far. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to pick up the book.

Our story starts with a banker (Jarvis Lorry) traveling by stagecoach from London to the English coast. It’s dark and cold and everyone is afraid of thieves who rob stagecoaches along this route all the time. Their coach fights up the hills through the mud. The horses are exhausted. A stranger appears along the road. Guns are cocked. He has only a message for the banker. He is to meet someone at Dover. The banker hopes the others in the coach were asleep.

At Dover the banker meets a young woman (Lucie Manette – about 18 years old). She is very afraid of her circumstances, and the banker keeps trying to convince her that it’s only business and she just needs to trust in the logic. They take a ship to Calais, in France, and then proceed somehow to Paris.

They show up at a bar in the neighborhood of today’s Faubourg Saint Antoine, just outside the city gate near the Bastille. The bartender, Mr. Defarge, leads them to a room upstairs where there is a man working diligently to make shoes. He doesn’t notice them as he keeps at his work. He has been imprisoned for a long time in France and seems to have lost his mind. The bartender and the banker try to approach him without any apparent success, while the young woman hangs back in fear. Then she comes to the front, comforts the man, her father, and after some time easing his pain, they all depart for England.

Back in London, there is a trial for a man accused of treason, Charles Darnay. He calmly awaits his fate. The punishment for conviction is death by the most horrible means – body separated into many parts. The King has a prosecutor and a couple of witnesses. They, upon questioning, appear to be witnesses for hire who say what the Crown wants them to say. There is a jury. Two other witnesses are the rescued prisoner, Dr Manette, and his daughter Lucie. It seems that they were on the ship and the stagecoach from Calais to London with the accused. They don’t seem to remember anything incriminating, but the crowd of onlookers is stuck by the image of rapport and consolation given the accused from these witnesses. There ensues a story of the two lawyers for the defense, the lion and the jackal so to speak. One is competent, the other is drunk and pitiful, but they compliment each other in their results. Ultimately Charles Darnay is acquitted and spared his life.

Years later, in London, Dr Manette lives in a peaceful house in Soho, shaded by a plaine tree. He has recovered (supported by the constant attention of his daughter) many of his previous faculties, but he is still haunted by the nightmares of prison. Occasionally he paces, but his daughter Lucie sees him through it. His shoe making bench sits in the corner of his bedroom. The banker, the lawyers, and even Charles Darnay are all visitors at their home.

Quartier Bastille narrow street

Typical street in Faubourg Saint Antoine as it might have been (sans street art) in 1780

The story shifts to Paris. There is a Monseigneur (a French nobleman of considerable wealth and power) whose day’s success or failure is determined by the quality of the service of his breakfast chocolate by his four servants. He has no idea or consideration for the lives of common people, who exist only to serve him. In the neighborhood Saint Antoine in Paris, there is another, similar minded aristocrat, the Marquis St. Evrémonde. The Marquis stands in line that morning for a long time hoping for an audience with the Monseigneur, and then departs Paris in a fury at being ignored.

The Marquis’s carriage runs down and kills the son of a man named Gaspard as the carriage races through the streets of Faubourg Saint Antoine. The hard-hearted Marquis offers Gaspard a coin for his trouble. Mr. Defarge, the bartender whose business is nearby, comforts Gaspard. The Marquis also gives him a coin for his trouble, The bartender hurls it back into the carriage as it speeds away.

The Marquis is absolutely convinced that his success depends upon his keeping the lowly people in their place. He takes his entourage to the countryside, where he has a château. Along the way he passes through a town where folks are gathered around a fountain. There are many stories and mentions of the Marquis. He recognizes in the town near the fountain a road mender whom he also saw earlier along his route through the countryside. The man asks him about the people in chains beneath his carriage. I don’t understand this part. Are these people being dragged along or are they hitching a ride (or neither)?

Upon his arrival at the Chateau, the Marquis is informed that a guest is expected that evening. Eventually they meet – it is his nephew, who uses the fictional name Charles Darnay. They dine together. The nephew says that his uncle needs to change his attitude towards the people, but the uncle says that it cannot be done. The nephew, who is also to be the heir of his uncle’s estate, renounces his claim to his inheritance. He sets out for London. That night, someone stabs the Marquis to death in his sleep.

Back in London, Charles Darnay realizes that he is in love with Lucie Manette. He approaches her father to reveal his love and to assure the doctor that above all else, he wishes that the close relations between the doctor and his daughter continue. He asks the doctor’s blessing, and offers to reveal the truth about his name. The doctor demurs. It will remain a mystery until the marriage. Meanwhile the lion lawyer decides that he must marry Lucie. He tells the jackal that he would be advised to get married too, should he ever be able to find someone compatible. Then he sets out to announce to Lucie his intentions, but along the way he stops by Tellson’s bank to see his friend Jarvis Lorry. After the lion announces his plan, the banker tells him he would be a fool to ask for the hand of Lucie. Though completely incensed, the lawyer accepts this analysis that his plans would certainly fail, and withdraws. After all, there must be better fish in the sea for someone with his impeccable qualities.

Meanwhile, his jackal failed partner visits Lucie and tells her what a failure his is. She responds with compassion and tries to inspire him. It’s an interesting exchange, and you wonder where it is going when it ends.

The scene shifts back to Paris. The bartender from Saint Antoine, Mr. Defarge, and his wife operate together a secret society aimed at overthrowing the King. She knits all the information that they discover into meaningless pieces of clothing. They don’t know if revolution will happen in their lifetimes, thus they play for the long term. Today, there is a man from the countryside who comes to the bar (the road mender). The bartender takes him upstairs to a private room to ask him to tell his story to himself and several friends, all named Jacques. The stranger tells of seeing a tall man named Gaspard, who was dragged through the village and taken to the prison. Horrible things had been done to him, and he was executed for killing the Marquis.

Gaspard à la Nuit

Restaurant Gaspard à la Nuit in the Marais near the Bastille.

I’m eating the other day at a restaurant in the Marais near rue Saint Antoine. On my way home, I pass a restaurant named Gaspard’s. I think I’m really on to something. I’m at ground zero for A Tale of Two Cities. After all, the Bastille was just a block away – that must have been the Doctor’s prison. The restaurant is La Gaspard de la Nuit. I think maybe we ate there one time – just to add to the intrigue.

I check out Gaspard de la Nuit on Google. The original reference is a poem by Aloysius Bertrand in the 1830’s. Gaspard is a man who lends another a book. When the borrower attempts to return the book, he finds that the lender is the devil. In 1908 Maurice Ravel turned this idea into one of the most difficult pieces ever for piano, La Gaspard de la Nuit. I haven’t determined why the restaurant chose that name, but I doubt is has anything to do with the tall man executed for killing the Marquis. Funny how we think we’re on to something, mais no.

Our adventure with the Tale of Two Cities will continue…

Bonne année 2020!

2019 was our seventh year in France, the last year of the decade, our 30th wedding anniversary, each of our 50th high school reunions, the 50th anniversary of my swearing in at the Naval Academy, the 30th anniversary of my taking command of USS Buffalo (SSN-715), the 50th anniversary of Woodstock and the moon landing, 30th Anniversary of the pyramid at the Louvre, and so many other things. Our 30th Anniversary lunch at Paris Le Cinq served to celebrate this confluence of epochs and events. 

Brenda and Beth head towards the finish line in the 2019 Bloomsday

Brenda and Beth head towards the finish line in the 2019 Bloomsday race.


We spent a lot of time visiting family this year. Brenda visited her mom Beth in Spokane three times (and I went too in May). Beth was the only finisher in the over 90 age group (among 45,000 race entrants) in this year’s Bloomsday 12k Road Race. We’re proud of her ability to continue living independently. Brenda and I finished the race too, though we weren’t near the top of our class. During our visits to Spokane we did lots of yard work and other things to help out. We visited friends in Poulsbo during our May trip and spent a few days graciously hosted by Randi Strong Petersen and Dick Soderstrom. In April we were in Poulsbo for Brenna Berquam’s law school graduation party at Kiana Lodge. That event earns party of the year.

My grand nephew Caedan hoping that I'll be able to hang on.

My grand nephew Caedan hoping that I’ll be able to hang on.

I went back to Peoria, IL, for my 50th reunion, but on the way I resolved to visit my nieces and my nephew, who are spread throughout the midwest. So I started by traveling to Leavenworth, KS, to visit my niece Tanya, husband Dan, and their son Caedan – 5 months old at the time. In addition, I visited the Army Post at Fort Leavenworth, studied the history of how the American West was developed, and had a great time.

Then I traveled to Rossford, OH to see my niece Tiffany with son Wulff (5) and daughter Alexis (almost 2). One day we went walking on a raised trail over a restored portion of the Great Black Swamp, which once extended hundreds of miles from the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio into central Indiana. It was a joy to see how the kids enjoyed playing outside and learning about the world.

John and Cathy von Allmen

John and Cathy von Allmen

On my return I stopped for the night near the Ohio border at cousin John von Allmen’s. He and wife Cathy hosted dinner for my cousins Mark and Nova, Amy and Chip, and also Mark’s daughter Abigail.

Alex on the campus of Epic Systems - Alice in Wonderland.

Alex on the campus of Epic Systems – Alice in Wonderland.

Then I visited my nephew Alex in Madison, Wisconsin. Alex works as a software engineer for Epic Systems, a medical software company somehow not located in Silicone Valley. Chances are your nearest major medical center uses their software. Alex took me on a tour of their campus, which was a fantasy world in itself. For me that was quite a treat.

I traveled to Pekin, IL, to visit my niece Tasha, husband Dustin, their daughter Emma (4), and son Jordan (9 months). Along the way I stopped by the former homes and graves of my grandparents in Davenport, IA, and my parents in Peoria. Tasha and Dustin took me to my first Morton Pumpkin Festival, where I had as much fun as the kids.

At my 50th reunion, contest to see which classmate traveled the farthest: I won by a few miles.

My 50th high school reunion was wonderful. On the one hand, there were many whom I’d hoped to see who didn’t show. On the other hand, it was great no matter. All credit to Debbie Dew for persevering to hold everything together. Peoria is where I grew up with the same group of kids all through school, an experience dear to me. It still feels like home.

We traveled elsewhere this year, starting with our February trip to Egypt with our French friends Cat and Jacques. Also in April we spent a weekend in London with Cat and Jacques. In July we went to Portugal, first some days in Porto with our Australian friends Dean and Alison, whom we were meeting for our fifth vacation together in Europe. Then on to Tavira in the south of Portugal where we met our friends Kelly and Linda, whom we had first met in Poulsbo, but who had retired to Portugal after living for years in New Mexico. Tavira had a small town atmosphere – everybody seemed to know everybody in the neighborhood.

Brenda becomes part of the art at Nice's Museum of Modern Art.

Brenda becomes part of the art at Nice’s Museum of Modern Art.


In August we spent a week in Nice, our 3rd year in a row staying in a friend’s apartment in the heart of the city. It’s our way of joining the many Parisians who leave the city during “le grand départ”.

In October we met our friend Martha in beautiful Vienna for a few days, then took the train with her to Berlin. Martha was on her quest to see all the worldly works of Pieter Bruegel, so we visited numerous museums in both cities. I had studied Carl Schorske’s Fin de Siècle Vienna to learn about the fascinating politics and culture in Vienna at the turn of the 20th Century. In Berlin we saw how most of the redevelopment since Germany’s reunification was in the eastern part. We met friends of Martha who told us about the isolation and sense of community that was in the old West Berlin during the Cold War. They told us of once being trapped in East Germany after breaking their car’s fan belt on their drive home from Denmark. They finally found someone to make a temporary fan belt using a nylon stocking to allow their return to West Berlin. Martha took us to see Rigoletto at the Berlin Opera, which was wonderful. I’ve barely touched on all that we saw in each of these cities.

Notre Dame before the great fire

Notre Dame before the great fire

We saw numerous visitors passing through Paris. We met our friend Niké Panta with her mother and sister visiting from Hungary at Notre Dame in the afternoon of the April day when the cathedral burned, though we only learned of the fire upon our return home. Seattle friend Laurie Grieg stayed with us for a few days in June, and Mary McAlhany visited while I was in the US in September. We also saw Steve and Linda Ingram, Brian Young, Dennis and Peggy Paige, Jennifer and Joe Bencharsky, Ann Randall, and no doubt some others whom I’ve failed to mention.

There’s always lots to do in Paris – to name a few of the events we experienced: the orchid show at Jardin des Plantes, Nuit Blanche (parade with museums open all night – we went to the Picasso Museum), a tour of the French Sénat, Salon d’agriculture, Salon du Chocolate, the impressionist collection of the British entrepreneur and art patron Samuel Courtauld at Fondation Louis Vuitton (which hadn’t been shown in Paris for 60 years), the Van Gogh exhibit at Ateliers des Lumieres, Fête de la Musique (first day of summer), a 4th of July picnic with American friends by the Seine, Bastille Day Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, Journées du Patrimoine where I toured the Banque de France, the Leonardo De Vinci Exhibit at the Louvre, Maison de Balzac (newly reopened) and several residences designed by Le Courbusier, lighting of the Holiday decorations on the Champs Elysées, and a Christmas chorale and bell concert at the American Church. We’ve tried doing more historical walks both inside Paris and on day trips outside to places like Giverny, Poissy, and Créteil. Brenda has a whole host of other activities she has pursued with friends, including Adrian Leeds, Fran Michalek, Kate Miller, and Anne Daignault.

We celebrated Thanksgiving twice, first with American friends on Thanksgiving, then with French friends a couple weeks later. We’ve gone to the movies and dinner most Sundays throughout the year with our friends Cat and Jacques, who also invited us into their home for Christmas and other occasions with their family. We’ve also enjoyed spending time with other friends in Paris, including Anna Cooper, Eric and Carole Taieb, Pascale Velleine, Betty Brohan, Danielle Robert, and Alex Ultrabright.

Our Poulsbo friend Barb has been visiting over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and despite the transit strike and protests that have somewhat crippled transportation in France this year, we were able to slip away for an overnight in Strasbourg to see the Christmas markets.

We were supposed to spend New Year’s eve at a party of French friends in Vincennes, east of Paris. The Paris transport strike closed most metro stations, so we set out at about 6:30pm to walk about 2km to the nearest open station, Frankllin Roosevelt. However, it was New Year’s Eve and 100,000 police had been deployed to control the huge crowd expected to celebrate on the Champs Élysées. There was a police barrier and they sent us away, telling us to walk around the Grand Palais to the station Champs-Élysées-Clemenceau, probably another 1km. Before arriving there, we came to another barrier where the police directed us to the next station, Concord, another 2km. Traffic was backed up everywhere. Taking a taxi or Uber was out of the question. We arrived at Concord, and, after venturing to 4 different entry points, we concluded it was closed too. We called our friends and said there was no way we could get to Vincennes. Then we trudged home with our cheesecake, now properly chilled, and our champagne. In all we walked about 10km in 2 hours in uncomfortable shoes. We celebrated at home by having some pasta with some cheesecake and some port, then settled in to watch a classic French film called the Rules of the Game (La règle de jeu), a parody of corrupt French society of the late 1930’s. Suddenly it was midnight.

My New Year’s resolution: to produce more posts to this blog through reduced research, less reflexion, and probably more errors. We’ll see how that goes.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you! Here is something to ring in the new year.