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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Picture Pages, Picture Pages

For those who have been paying less attention than others: I’ve finally gotten around to uploading pictures from my trip, and to linking those pictures to the appropriate journal entries. (For the pedants: I’ve also fixed the incorrect accents that resulted from typing in French on a UK keyboard.) I’m still working on editing the sound recordings, and still have a large backlog of mail and e-mail to send. But I did say the sorting would take months, didn’t I?


I landed in Philadelphia less than an hour ago, and it just feels weird. I’m sure that will wear off in a few hours, but right now I’m experiencing culture shock. The money looks funny and I forget how to make change. They serve coffee in paper cups with nowhere to sit, and the tax isn’t included on the menu board. And damn, is it ever a big cup, even at the “small” size. The accent annoys me, and I’m putting my adverbs in weird places when I try to talk. By tomorrow morning, I’m sure I’ll be over it, but for the moment I feel like I’m in a foreign country again.

That’s probably exacerbated by my physical condition, as a result of my last sleepless night in Paris, France, Europe. I spent a fair portion of the afternoon in the Musée des Arts et Metiers, which is connected to L’École des Arts et Metiers. It contains exhibits about the history of science, engineering, manufacturing, constructions, etc. Everything from astrolabes to iPods is represented. A great museum, really. Geek that I am, I was most interested in Pascal’s calculating machines, the Cray supercomputer, the early phonographs, and the first pay phones. They had one terrific phonograph with two turntables and two horns, so you could actually cross-fade for dances and the like. Hand-cranked DJ’ing = amazing.

Near sunset, I met with Ilan by the Seine to play old-time music. It was definitely peculiar playing traditional Appalachian music in the shadow of Notre Dame de Paris as tourist boats shined their floodlights on us so people could take pictures. (I wonder how many vacation photos I’m in by now. I wonder if any of them realized that they were tourists taking photos of another tourist.) After a couple of hours, Max from the hostel in Aix tracked us down, along with his friend Ellen, and we hopped a bus to Belleville to see Savoy Cajun music at a punk club. It was a crazy mix of people — the bar regulars were heavily tatooed Parisian punks, and the people there to actually hear the Cajun band were largely Americans. I dragged a bunch of them onto the dance floor for the two steps and waltzes. The band was terrific, and really a great musical segue for me. In addition to Cajun, they do some honky-tonk, but translated into Cajun French. So I got to two-step to George Jones’s “N’Arretes Pas La Musique”. Weird.

After the show, we met up with Steven, the bass player from the old-time band I crashed the previous night, and went to a late bar to get drunk and argue politics until 4am. Steven is British-born and a staunch royalist. He holds that the monarchy is the primary reason that Britain has had a stable government for hundreds of years. Ilan is a self-described Libertarian, and I found myself arguing in favor of Social Democracy, if only to take a contrary position. Many whiskeys later, I bid adieu to tous la monde and ambled back to the Hotel to get four hours of sleep before my flight. (Thank you, Benjamin Franklin, for the extra hour.)

I’m now over the mild hangover, back on U.S. soil, and awaiting my escape pod back to Appalachia. Weird to think that I’ll sleep in my house tonight, and tomorrow night, and the night after that, into the foreseeable future. Weird to think that I’ll wake up tomorrow to spend the day at a desk. Weird to think that I’ll need to buy groceries, feed the cat, pay the water bill. I’m sure I’ll be OK, but for now it just seems so foreign. I keep listening hard to the airport announcements to translate them, but they’re already in English.

Paris (encore)

It’s now the morning of my last day in France. Tomorrow I will wake up, get on the train to the airport, and catch a flight home. By now, the idea of home seems exotic. I’m thinking about collecting wood for the stove, about playing my banjo, about spending the winter in front of the fire working out accordion tunes.

But a part of me will also miss Paris, I think. After spending the afternoon in the park yesterday pecking at notes and being just a little too cold (although it will be colder still in Virginia), I went to the bar to catch up with Ilan and his French old-time band. Sadly for them, the show was really poorly attended, but it worked out for me in that they invited me to sit in with them, which was good fun. Ilan is an ex-pat American who married a French girl and has lived in Paris for four years. He’s primarily a piano accordionist, and spent a year in Transylvania learning Romanian and gypsy styles. At his apartment after the show, he played some modern Romanian fiddle music for me – great stuff. We’re going to meet up later today to play old-time music by the Seine, which I find to be an amusing juxtaposition. Tonight we’ll hit the Cajun show, a band led by Sarah Savoy of the legendary Savoy family from Louisiana. So my last two nights in Europe will have been spent playing and dancing to traditional American music. A month ago, that would have seemed like a cop-out; today it just feels like a segue.


I’ve been in Paris for two days now, and am finding that I like it more than I had expected. In certain respects, it reminds me of the things that I like about New York – for instance, the fact that it’s a perpetual freak show of buskers, hustlers, and con men. In the face of Paris Overload, I had the realization that I never actually went to New York as a tourist. The first time I went was an overnight visit for an interview, and the second time I went was to live, so I never had that feeling of needed to do everything I wanted to do in four days. In Paris, I had to abandon that notion pretty quickly, and am taking the days as they come. I haven’t yet done any busking (it’s way colder in Paris than it was in Provence), but I have been up to other projects.

My first stop in Paris was Shakespeare and Company, the English language bookstore that offers beds to traveling writers. It sounded like the ideal crash pad; unfortunately, there was no room in the stable. So instead I paid 28€ for the privilege of not sleeping a damned wink in the crowded hostel, thanks to the high school tour group that was staying there and hollering down the hall to each other all night. In the morning, I packed up and went down the block to the Hotel Pelican, where for 10€ more I’ve got my own room.

The Pelican itself is an odd little hotel. Its place on the row is at most twelve feet wide, which means that there are two rooms per floor and a badly-leaning spiral staircase going up the middle. The plumbing has problems (I took a very cold shower this afternoon, and my sink doesn’t drain), my door doesn’t shut all the way (even when locked), but I slept like a rock all night and it’s a place to leave my stuff for a couple of days. For a 38€ hotel room two blocks from the Louvre, there’s not much to complain about.

Status of my projects for Paris: 1) Attend one more dance in France: check. I went last night to a bal folk at Les 3 Arts with the band Qu’Import la Jument. Great band. And I was pleased to find that most of the dances were the same ones that I had seen way down in Provence – apparently the popular repertoire is fairly small. So I danced a bit, watched and listened a lot, and talked to the band and the bar staff a bit. It’s maybe the only real trad bar in Paris: they do music several nights a week, all of it traditional (though not necessarily French). The barman gave me the name and number of an American old-time accordionist in Paris, whom I’ll be meeting tonight at a gig in the Northeast corner of the city. The accordionist for Qu’Importe la Jument gave me directions to Paris Accordéon, the premiere accordion dealer in Paris. I left a Jugbusters CD with the bar, and came back to the Pelican with a head full of Belgian ale and some missions for today.

2) Visit the Museé de la Musique: check, sort of. I went to the museum, only to discover that the permanent collection is temporarily closed for renovation until March. Bummer. There was a special exhibition on Serge Gainsbourg, but it didn’t have much to offer if you weren’t already a die-hard Gainsbourg fan (and I’m not). So that trip was kind of a bust.

So today I addressed 3) Find a diatonic accordion: check. I walked to Paris Accordéon this morning, and found what could only exist in France or Italy: a fairly sizable shop dedicated to nothing but accordion sales, repairs, lessons, books, CDs, etc. An accordionphile’s incestuous dream, and one that I shared for an hour or so, trying out different instruments, talking accordions with the proprietor, and generally being impressed that I was in an accordion emporium. I finally settled on a beautiful Italian model (what guy wouldn’t want a beautiful Italian model?) that should be good enough to play even if I stick with it for several years. I passed over the cheaper Chinese-made Hohners – they just didn’t seem to be built for a long-term relationship. I spent an hour or two in the park this afternoon getting better acquainted with the Italian model – she’s complicated, but I think we’ll get along fine.

So I’ve got a day left in France, and the checklist for Paris is complete. Tonight I’ll meet Ilan and his French old-time band, which seems reasonably likely to lead to some shenanigans. I’ve been asked to bring my fiddle. Tomorrow I’ll improvise – Ilan will be at work during the day, but Max should be somewhere in Paris by now, so maybe we’ll meet up somewhere. Ilan told me about a Cajun concert tomorrow night, so we’ll probably hit that for some fiddle and accordion greatness. And Sunday morning, I finally fly home. I actually feel like I could stay in Paris a few days longer. There’s a jam session at Les 3 Arts on Sunday, and a Klezmer show Sunday night, but my time is up.

TGV d’Aix-En-Provence à Paris

After a bit of impromptu hiking in between Arles and Aix yesterday morning (during which I stumbled upon a pretty sizable apiary, probably there to pollinate either grapes or olives), I spent the day sightseeing in Aix-En-Provence. While Aix is notable for having been host to Cezanne during his most productive years, there’s not actually terribly much to see and do. It’s a pleasant enough city – lots of pedestrian promenades and fountains – and that was really enough for me for the day. I spent the warm part of the afternoon sitting outside at a glacerie eating ice cream, drinking coffee, and reading. In the evening, I shuffled off to the hostel and met Max, an American living and teaching at an American boarding school in the south of France. We finished off the remainder of my Cote du Rhône red while talking about literature and politics, then headed back to town for a picnic dinner – the now-standard fare: bread, cheese, wine, and pastries. It’s getting hard to remember what else there is to eat. Two bottles later, we again shuffled back to the hostel and met our third roommate, a crazy genius Moroccan-Sicilian bibliophile, who had just returned from town with a wine buzz of his own. With a triumphant matador’s flourish, he produced a bra from his coat pocket. “De mon avocat” he proudly exclaimed. (I’m not clear whether he actually slept with his lawyer, or whether there was idiom at work that I don’t know. In retrospect, probably his own personal idiolect.) He talked to us in a torrent of French, and I responded when I could get a word in, during the course of a conversation that veered from Keith Jarrett to Pliny the Elder to Nils Bohr to Robert Oppenheimer through a bewildering set of segues that I think wouldn’t have made much sense even in English. My Sicilian-Moroccan friend was apparently a book dealer, in Aix to pick up a collectible folio of Pompeii. He gifted me with a sample page from the proofs, a color print on lovely cotton paper depicting the town of Pompeii before Vesuvius. An extraordinary souvenir of an extraordinary encounter.

I’m now on the train en route to Paris, the terminus of my trip. I have three days and three goals: 1) Attend one more dance in France, on Thursday night. 2) Visit the Museé de la Musique and its collection of rare and unusual musical instruments. Finally, a project that I decided upon while listening to some of my sound recordings on the train: 3) Find and possibly purchase a decent diatonic accordion. Now that I’ll be doing no more traveling, save for the flight home, I’m willing to collect some baggage. I’ll probably also look for CDs by some of the grand chanteurs whose songs I’ve run across during my travels. I’ve revised my estimate: it will take months to sort through the materials I’ve collected on this trip.