Rain In the Street, Not in the Heart

Except for the Alamo and a few other historic sites, Texans aren’t sentimental about preserving the past. My husband and I, who are Texans by birth or habit (even when our state infuriates us every several hours), are part of a culture that razes the old and lionizes the new.

We are all about progress and moving on. We’re descendants of pioneers who kept pushing west, always looking for something better, newer, different, till the West finally ran out or the horse died or Ma said she’d shoot Pa (that dreamer with stars in his eyes and itch in his feet) if they didn’t stop moving on and agree to settle down now.

So, it’s striking for us to spend almost a month in Paris, with its centuries of vivid, intact history and its stubborn and haughty refusal to change much. They seem to have found perfection in their city’s great boulevards and narrow cobbled streets, its grand cathedrals and majestic monuments. Who wants to mess with perfection?

And, wandering around, marveling at its stunning views and irresistible charms, who could argue with that? Not us.

My husband and I have walked miles through the cold and on-and-off rain. From our small apartment in the 7th arrondissement, we’ve crossed the Seine into the Marais, traipsed on to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery with its marble remembrances to the long dead, the new dead, and the famous dead. By then, we were too tired to hunt down the graves of Oscar Wilde or Edith Piaf or Colette. and we didn’t really care about Jim Morrison. So, being Texans, we moved on.

(“Either that wallpaper goes — or I do,” Oscar Wilde is reported to have said on his deathbed. Knowing Paris, you have to assume the wallpaper is still there.)


Coming back, we glimpsed a young Parisienne on a street close to ours. Her hair looked like Jerry Hall’s back when Jerry used to hang out with Jean-Paul Sartre (no kidding). She walked along carelessly on high heels through the cobblestones, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind her, smoking a cigarette, and looking deeply bored by the meaninglessness of life.

A few days later, having gnawed our way through the menus of restaurants close to us. I read about a foreign correspondent’s recommendations on the 10 hottest Parisian restaurants. “There’s one really close, in the 6th arrondissement,” I told my husband. “You have to make reservations years in advance. But if you’re willing to come at a really unfashionable time, you can maybe get in. It’s supposed to be very earthy but refined.”

Since we wrote the book on being really unfashionable, we happily showed up at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon after starving ourselves the whole day. The restaurant, Le Comptoir du Relais, looked like any number of so-so establishments in the area. We went to the end of a line outside, feeling very much in the know — especially when we learned the people in front of us had just hopped off a flight from Tel Aviv to get there.

Now and then, the hostess admitted a couple of people from the line and led them inside. Then, it started to rain. “God, I feel sorry for those losers sitting outside,” my husband said, nodding at the outdoors tables full of people eating and drinking, smoking and shivering, “It’s only” — he checked his iPhone — “36 degrees.”


Oh, sure, that was a lot better than the minus 40F in Lapland, but our blood had already thinned dramatically. Paris has its own kind of chill that works its way into your bones.

The hostess appeared again and led the Israeli couple inside. When she returned, she looked a little apologetic. There were no more seats inside the restaurant, she said. We could either wait an hour or join the shivering patrons outside.

So this is how you find yourself sitting outside a hot Paris restaurant on a wintry late January afternoon, huddled in your coats and scarves and hats, eating with your gloves on, trying to ignore the rain that was just inches away. Next to us, the small crowd of patrons laughed and talked and blew cigarette smoke in our faces — and who cared, since the bursts of smoke were almost as warm as the feeble heaters above us?

In fact, who cared at all, when the escargots were delectable and garlicky, the bread crusty and warm, the veal stew rich and hearty, the small chicken moist and tender? For dessert, I ordered ice cream and my husband asked for a drink. The waiter returned with my ice cream and a layered dish of cream and liqueur.

At first, my husband argued he hadn’t ordered the dessert and the waiter went off in a huff. By the time he returned, we had already eaten most of the dish, which I’d announced was going down in my personal dessert hall of fame.

What’s the country and Western lyric — something about how if loving something is wrong, I don’t wanta be right? I think I hummed it all the way home.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)




Feasts That Move On

By the time my husband and I left Finnish Lapland, the temperature had skyrocketed to minus 3 Fahrenheit. We flew to Helsinki, then Stockholm, then boarded a flight to Paris.

The hard, icy tundra, a world of white and gray daylight hours and long, black nights, fell away. We glided into Paris watching the city’s golden lights beneath us. We’ll be here for three weeks.

A great violence had come here and, we hoped, had departed. But who knows? Millions had marched in the streets and “Je suis Charlie” signs were propped in store windows. The city and its people were tense, we’d read, but maybe we didn’t know the city well enough to recognize it on our own. The city looked much as it always had to us — graceful and charming and dazzling.

We first came here in 1972, when my then-boyfriend and I were broke college students. We stayed in 6th-floor walkups in the student quarter and shared bathrooms with anybody else on the same hall.

In France, I first learned you could actually eat the green curlicues on the dishes, which no one at the Furr’s Cafeteria in West Texas would have dreamt of doing (our seasonings were all taken care of by Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, merci beaucoup). A haughty waiter who towered over us one night taught me that “banana” was feminine, not masculine, but I’m still not sure I concede the point. Maybe we just spoke French differently in Midland, where bananas remained the he-men of fruit.

The next morning, my husband and I wandered through the winding streets of the 6th and 7th arrondissements. They create the most elegant window displays on earth here — languid mannequins draped in cashmere and silk and hauteur. Every few steps I stopped and couldn’t move, drawn in by the opulence and the winter sale signs. My husband, oddly, was less intrigued.

“Go to Bon Marche,” the young Frenchwoman who let us into our temporary apartment had said. We went to Bon Marche


— an immense department store full of luxury goods and winter sales and the most glamourous food aisles on the planet earth. I went into my own version of a retail frenzy: I want to be elegant, I want to be well-dressed, I want to be French, damn it. Somehow, it all seemed to involve scarves. Send me to this town and I want to be Isadora Duncan, sans the final scene.

“This is how you tie a scarf,” the thin, beautiful, middleaged woman told me at the scarf counter at Bon Marche. She went into action, creating a small work of art above my collar bone. I watched her, but promptly forgot what she’d done. I am simply too American to tie a scarf artfully.

Her name, she told me, was Amalia Vairelli, and she’d been a top model in her youth. “I was the muse,” she said, “to Yves St. Laurent.”

So she’d traveled and met everyone and whooped it up and had done whatever muses do. But time passed and gravity had its way with her and St. Laurent made his final exit — and, along the way, she’d spent all her money. “So now, I work in scarves, from time to time so I can support my art,” she said, folding the scarf back into a soft rectangle.

A muse! I’d never met a muse before, much less a muse to Yves St. Laurent. I wasn’t even quite sure what muses did, except to look glamorous and inspire geniuses to creativity. They were probably the same kind of women who got rock songs written about them. You’re either that kind of woman or you’re not, and I knew which group I fell into. That other kind of woman — like Isadora Duncan, I suspected — had probably been born knowing how to tie a scarf.

We went back to our little apartment and I fired up my iPad. There was Amalia Vairelli at the height of her beauty, looking soignee and fiercely elegant and there was Yves St. Laurent standing close beside her, looking inspired.

Funny how we all make our way in life, I thought. Some of us could be muses, some of us could be amusing, but we all had to find our own way.

“What a life you must have had,” I’d said to Amalia Vairelli as she tended to her small domain of soft cashmere scarves.

She had shrugged again, the way only a Frenchwoman can shrug. “After all of that,” she had said, “at least I got to keep my soul.”

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)






Observations From the Top of the World

1) You are probably wondering how we got here — inside the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. By jet, as it turns out, Tourism is a big business here. Children come with their families to see Santa before Christmas. Now, in January, all sorts of young adventurers and old nutcases come here. You can imagine which group we fall into.

We are here for a few days with our friends Jim and Hester Magnuson,


neighbors of ours from our West Austin ‘hood. All Jim and Hester had to do was mention they were taking some insane trip to Lapland in mid-winter and my husband and I promptly invited ourselves along. We do that all the time, according to our friend Nancy Scanlan, just because we once invited ourselves to a dinner party she was having with Valerie Plame. But that was different, obviously.

Anyway, Lapland. The Magnusons are here because Jim is researching a book, which I won’t spill the beans on if you torture me. I am that kind of friend. I may tactlessly invite myself to strange places, but your secrets are safe with me.

2) We are officially here during the coldest days of the winter of ’14-’15. So far, anyway. Last week, it even got up to something like 25 F, which constitutes kind of a heat wave. My husband claims we are lucky we hit Lapland during a cold front when the temperature plunged to MINUS 40 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. People respect that kind of cold, he says. They would have snickered at us if we’d gone around bellyaching about a lame 25 degrees. But minus 40! We’ll pull that trump card whenever we can, kind of like our blighted trip tp Albania in 1998.

For once, we are smart enough to have dressed for the weather. We have on so many layers of clothes, we are so bundled and so layered, that we look like a pair of salt and pepper shakers. Hester, who has taken to wearing an outer gear of overalls with logos all over them, looks much like a filling-station attendant. Even our faces are wrapped in layers so our noses won’t freeze. Our eyebrows and eyelashes turn frosty, though.


3) The cold! We all marvel at it, but can’t quite comprehend it, As West Texans, we feel we’re from a hostile environment — what with our blistering sun, our rattlesnakes, our droughts, our dust storms, our blue northers. But this is another level, a new kind of hostility. It won’t kill you as quickly as a rattlesnake, but you could lose your way and they would’t find your frozen corpse till July. I’m pretty sure this is what happened to one of the characters in Giants in the Earth, but I believe it took place in Minnesota.


4) And yes, I still think and talk in terms of Fahrenheit and I know it’s deeply illogical and we’re out of touch with the rest of the world — but I’m tired of apologizing for it. At 65, I’m just a Fahrenheit kind of girl.

I recall the US was moving toward Celsius, then dropped it. My husband says it was Ronald Reagan’s fault. This surprised me. I’ve gotten used to blaming George W. Bush for everything.

5) I told you we were wearing many, many layers — long underwear, sweaters, multiple scarves, hats, and gloves. You lose something when you’re packing on all those layers — most quickly and specifically, vanity and an insistence on fastidiousness. Do I really need that daily shower when it’s freezing in our room and the faucet offers up a thin stream of tepid H2O? No, I do not.

6) Our first night here, we slept in a glass igloo. We could see the black sky and the bright stars from our beds. At around 11, the skies began to move and shift with wisps of white and gray and pale lavender. Don’t tell me the Northern Lights have to be vivid and technicolor; ours were more subtle and pastel. I suppose I could search the internet to offer up an explanation of the aurora borealis, but I won’t. Sometimes, I want magic more than science — and our Northern Lights were pure magic.


7) Earlier, I mentioned that this resort is currently packed with young adventurers. Seeing them, I quickly realize I was never an adventurer, even when I was their age. They spend their days snowmobiling and dogsledding and skiing. For someone of my neurotic disposition, walking from our cabin to the restaurant is a great adventure, more than enough for me.

8) Traveling with another couple, you learn a lot about one another. For weeks, I’d mentioned to the Magnusons that we’d all enjoy a sauna at my husband’s cousin’s wonderful farm in Sweden.

“You have to get naked for saunas, don’t you?” Hester asked suspiciously.

Well yes, I said. Usually, anyway.

“Well, I don’t get naked,” Hester announced. She reiterated her point frequently in voice mails and emails. I don’t get naked! No, siree! Not at my age!

Our last morning at Cousin Per’s farm, he fired up his outdoor sauna for us. Hester went into her old routine about not getting naked, you can forget that right now. But then she could see the other three of us were intent on it, so she went along.

That’s how the four of us ended up sitting together in Per’s sauna. baking as long as we could bear it, then traipsing outside to duck into a hole Per had cut in the iced-over lake. Hester and I sat and compared the many imperfections of our bodies, as women are somehow prone to do.

Maybe it’s because a Southern girl like Hester would rather do anything — even get naked — than disappoint her friends. Maybe it’s because getting naked is just different in Sweden and doesn’t quite count.

But you see? You can have adventures at any age. It’s all in how you define them.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)




Favorite Blog Posts of 2014

Happy New Year! Here are the posts I like best from the past year:

1) The Audacity of Hops — Every time I turn around, some expert has a new tip about not dying or aging better or whatever. I try them all, of course;

2) Meteorology 101 — My husband took a weather course in college. That’s why he’s screaming at the meteorologist on TV;

3) Our Family Gets Cloven — Our daughter got married. Our family will never be the same;

4) Going Wild in Canada — We’re normally urban creatures. But it turns out there are bears — and succulent lobsters — in Atlantic Canada;

5) The Love Letter — When you find an abandoned love letter on a city street — what should you do?;

6) Autumn in Texas — How do you know it’s fall in Texas? The signs are subtle to nonexistent

7) So Much for Our In-Town Dynasty — Just when your kids get interesting — and self-supporting — they leave you;

8) Trivia is My Life — I am at the Gone With the Wind exhibit and I just can’t stop talking about everything I know.

9) Scattered Thoughts From a Mother Whose Daughter is Getting Married — Or I’m No Martha Stewart.

10) Moon River — Most women want to be Audrey Hepburn; most men don’t get it at all.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Best Blog Posts of 2013 and 2012




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See Our Lights, Read Our Minds

Blogger’s note: Here is my favorite holiday post from 2008:


University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling studies what personal spaces — like offices and bedrooms — can tell us about their owners.  These rooms are particularly revealing about whether the occupant is open and conscientious, Gosling says.

All of this — which Gosling refers to as the “science of snooping” — validates my most recent theorizing about holiday lights.  So I’m not a scientist — big deal.  I’ve got two eyes and lots of opinions.

For example: Right now, around our neighborhood, holiday lights blaze at night.  All-white seems to be the predominant trend this year.  (This figures.  Our own house, of course, has multicolored lights.  If we ever get all-white lights, it won’t be till they’re out of style.)

But anyway, nosing around our neighborhood (which I cleverly disguise as “taking a walk”), I’ve come up with a new, important theory that Gosling might be interested in.  Here it is:  The more dramatic, professional and dazzling the lights, the less neighborly the homeowners are.

Take the people who live catti-corner from us.  At least, I think people live there, behind the big, unwelcoming, Gulag-styled brick wall they erected a couple of years ago.  Sometimes I see cars come and go, but I’ve rarely seen people.  Nobody in our neighborhood has ever spoken to them, either.  But we’re pretty sure the house is populated.

These neighbors’ lights, though — white, of course, and professionally installed — flash and twinkle all night long this time of year.  They’re not as warm and comforting as neighborly chats and waves, but at least they’re dependable.

At our house, you can see another personality dynamic at work.  Our lights this year look very much like the lights we displayed last year.  And the year before.  That’s because they’re the same lights we’ve had up for years; we just don’t turn them on till late November.  From this information, you can reasonably surmise that we’re slobs.  But, I like to think, we’re neighborly slobs.

That’s some information — but it’s only a start.  You can always dig deeper and find out more.

You can see, in our year-round holiday lights, the story of a long-married couple.  Every year, after Thanksgiving, he climbed up on the roof and decorated the house and it looked great.  Every January, she started nagging him to take them down.  Some years, when she was feeling especially vocal, they came down in February or March.  (January was always just a dream.)  Other years, they were up till May or till a new roof was put on.

The years passed.  One year, the holiday lights were still up in July. How do you ask someone to take the holiday lights down when it’s only five months till Christmas?  “Pretend they’re early this year,” he said.  She did.

After that, she knew it was over.  It was one of those battles she finally surrendered — like the dirty socks on the floor, homemade fireworks on the Fourth of July, presents on Christmas morning, instead of Christmas Eve.

She saved herself for bigger battles, such as which house they should buy (she had been right, everyone now admitted), whose marital duty it was to take care of last year’s little rodent problem (drawing on the little-known, but very helpful feminist belief that rats are men’s business), what to name the kids (pregnancy gives priority, in another heralded feminist decision).

So, you see — you think you’re just seeing holiday lights when you walk or drive past people’s houses.  But, really, it’s so much more.  We’re living our lives, baring our souls, dramatizing our intimate struggles — and putting them on display every year.

Just ask Sam Gosling.  He’ll back me up, I feel sure.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)