If you believe Wikipedia, we have illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, who created the slender-waisted, chignon-crowned Gibson Girl, to blame for the American woman’s obsession with beauty. The online encyclopedia claims he personified the feminine ideal with his “satirical” pen and ink drawings. If you believe Richard D. (Dick) Rasor, a former advertising executive for J. Walter Thompson and the current owner of The Bethel Inn Resort in Bethel, Maine, Gibson was the first American feminist.
The Gibson Room at The Bethel Inn Resort.
Rasor has dedicated an entire room at the Inn to the long-necked beauties and their eponymous creator. He took me on a tour of the Gibson Room earlier today, pointing out how the graphic designer riffed on men, the weaker sex, in many of his renderings: “With absolute clarity, he shows how screwed up men are!”
Leave it to Rasor to have a different take on Gibson’s standing in American history, as he has a razor sharp way of cutting through ambiguities (pun intended)! The hotelier bought a very different resort in 1979 than the one I am sitting within as I write this today. The 60-guestroom hotel surrounded by 100 acres and a 9-hole golf course saw 3,000 visitors a year in the late seventies. Today the property hosts 35,000 guests to its gracious spot off the commons in the Maine mountain village; has 200 acres surrounding its charming Victorian façade, an 18-hole golf course, 40 condominiums abutting the green, 40 kilometers of cross-country ski trails, and a popular spa.
During lunch in the Inn’s Millbrook Tavern & Grille, Rasor explained that from the start he was intent on founding a marketing-based business when he left the “Mad Men” world of New York City advertising. He paid $400,000 for the property in ’79, which he pointed out was about the same amount of money a home in Scarsdale, New York, would have cost during that time. In an article printed in Snow Country in 1989, Rasor advised everyone in the high-pressured world he had left to sell their $800,000 homes, buy a $150,000 home in Bethel, and use the rest of the money to open a small business: “There’s no way, really, to be on a power trip in Bethel, Me,” he quipped.
The talented businessman practiced what he preached, trading in his room at the top for a room at the Inn, and he’s been thrilled about his decision ever since. I, for one, am happy to have been in his spirited presence as he shared his passion about building a unique property with an abundance of character in the heart of one of the prettiest mountain destinations in our country. I am also happy he didn’t take his father’s advice. “Don’t get into the hotel business,” was the elder Rasor’s first caveat. Then he told his son, “If you do, don’t be dumb enough to buy a resort!” Had Rasor listened, not only would he have missed out on the opportunity to create a unique vacation experience for thousands of tourists each year, he might not have met his beautiful wife Gretchen, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last evening.
"A Little Story. By A Sleeve." by Charles Dana Gibson.
And back to the Gibson Room: Rasor owns several original Gibson Girl drawings, which explains his fascination with the comely women with pert chins and perfectly pursed lips. He motioned me over to a framed drawing—one of about a dozen in the room—titled “A Little Story. By a Sleeve.” As we leaned down and peered at the illustration, he asked me why I thought the piece of art was given such a title. I said, “I have no idea!” With a very pleased expression on his face, he said, “Look at her sleeves: one is flat! Guess where the guy would have been sitting before the waiter came in! And a Gibson Girl would never have a lock of hair out of place!”
Detail of one of Charles Dana Gibson's drawings in the Gibson Room at the Bethel Inn Resort. It's all in the details!
Though this may seem completely unrelated to a story about an inn, I beg to differ. A successful hospitality venue is built upon a precept that Rasor’s keen observation skills attest to: it’s all in the details. One of the results of this at the Bethel Inn Resort is an ample dose of charm.
You can like the Bethel Inn Resort Facebook page here, and follow them on Twitter here.
The view from my terrace at The Cliff House in Ogunquit, Maine.
I’m in Maine, enjoying the hospitality of The Cliff House in Ogunquit, perched above the sea on a wildly gorgeous stretch of rocky coast. Being able to drink in the surroundings has been one blessing from my opportunity to stay; having access to the same stretch of shoreline that wooed May Sarton when she lived a few miles from here is another. Having her words has brought my experiences greater depth and has intensified this writer’s pleasure beyond words.
As I’ve watched flotillas of waterfowl bobbing in the tiny coves created by the jagged outcropping below my terrace, I imagined Sarton at Wild Knoll. She wrote about living there in a journal she kept during 1974. It was published in 1976 as The House by the Sea. She described her first taste of the landscape in the book: “…once I had stood on the wide flagstone terrace and looked out over that immensely gentle field to a shining, still, blue expanse, the decision [to move there] was taken out of my hands.” She describes this part of Maine as a place “creating the atmosphere of a fairy tale, something open yet mysterious that every single person who comes here is led to explore.”
The waning light paints a resplendent portrait of the end of this day.
The blue expanse Sarton wrote about has a powerful presence that infuses every part of the day with altering moods. While having a glass of wine as the sun slid away to the west, I studied the view from the terrace from an al fresco table holding a bright red umbrella like summer’s promise of glee. The scene revealed a swath of water turned the color of liquid mercury, crimped in spots where the wind touched its surface. The sky, palest blue and powdery pink except at its meeting point with the water, seemed to want to emulate the blue notes from the strip of darkest hues where the ocean met the horizon. A boat cut a wake, marring the serenity and leaving an indelible blue line drawn in the liquid sheen. The mark became ruffled as the rising tide nudged it to shore. Caught in the movement, it splashed above boulders and slabs of striated moss-laden rock until it was picked up by the breeze and dashed heavenward. Puddles of water formed erratically shaped mirrors reflecting the waning daylight, mercurial in contrast to the wet darkness of the seaweed-draped stones.
Sarton wrote, “I have slipped into these wide spaces, this atmosphere of salt and amplitude, this amazing piece of natural Heaven and haven, like a ship slipping into her berth.” Like Sarton, I came here seeking a place to write, and I have found it. The staff here has been attentive but respectful of my desire for solitude as I scribbled in notebooks and slashed pieces of writing long needing my attention while “real life” made it impossible for me to give them the concentration they deserved. I had a wonderful massage yesterday and as Julie gently rocked me from side to side, causing tears to spring to my eyes from the gratitude of having someone create such a lovely experience just for me, I thought about how the theme of this stay is about being touched. Not just by her knowing hands, which helped to relieve the tensions brought on by the world; but by Christian’s carefully selected wines; by a staff eager to please; and most gloriously by a powerful landscape.
Christian Bahre shared with me a delightful Moscato D'Asti from Italy.
Thirty-eight years ago to this day, Sarton intended to take an afternoon nap; she found herself caught up in the surrounding natural activity instead: “…unable to fall asleep, I amused myself listening to all the summer sounds—the leaves stirring like the rustling of taffeta; beyond it the gentle steady roar of the sea, tide rising; but what surprised me was how many birds were singing at that hour, two in the afternoon…I lay there for a half hour, listening, and got up refreshed.” I am being given the same opportunity for refreshment as I let the magic of this place wash over me. Thanks to Patrick, Matt, Brenda, Cheryl, Courtney, Christian, Birget and Julie for making my stay so peaceful. You have helped me to achieve what Sarton sought when she wrote, “I mean every encounter here to be more than superficial…”
[This post was written on July 10, 2012, in Ogunquit, Maine. I have been given comped stay and services by this property but the generosity has in no way swayed my opinions expressed here.]
I attended a wonderfully executed event held by Visit Maine earlier this month, which has me dreaming up some idyllic summer plans. The food during the evening at the St. Regis Hotel was delicious, and the wine crisp and clean juxtaposed against the rich flavors of crab, clams and lobster.
I’ll be sharing news here about treks to Ogunquit, where I will visit The Cliff House, as well as other wonderful venues in the seaside town. Then I’ll hightail it to the mountains to a charming spot on the hem of the White Mountain National Forest to a town called Bethel. I can’t wait to peruse the architecture of the quaint village, which will be celebrating its centennial next year.
I’ll be taking a day-trip to Cape Elizabeth to see how the eco-friendly initiatives being supported by Inn by the Sea are going. I will always have a soft spot for the wonderful resort perched on the edge of Crescent Beach Sate Park and Seal Cove. I’m especially keen to see their Bunny Habitat Restoration, which they are undertaking in collaboration with the Maine Department of Conservation and the Parks Department, as they take steps to restore the habitat for the endangered New England Cottontail rabbit.
My head was swimming with thoughts of fun escapades when I left that evening—cultural events at the Stonington Opera House and the Maine Maritime Museum, along with the sounds of the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival caught my eye; a sand-nestled cottage from Seaside Vacation Rentals in York, and news of Amtrak’s Downeaster expanding northward to Brunswick rounded out the exploratory legwork I am hoping will take me far away from the steamy cement of NYC this summer!
Gordon Ramsay (left) and chef Alessandro Delfanti in Contrada at Castel Monastero
One of my favorite trips of 2010 was a jaunt to Italy in late September/early October. During my tour of the beautiful country I had two amazing days at Castel Monastero near Sienna where I caught up with the renowned chef and television bad boy Gordon Ramsay, who heads up the cookery program at the resort and is the visionary behind the restaurants there. I was impressed with the refreshing honesty the Hell’s Kitchen host brought to the interview and enjoyed getting a glimpse behind the scenes of the rocking-and-rolling life of this intrepid adventurer.
RBD: Has anything surprised you about your career?
GR: Yeah, all the crap I get! Behind all the shouting, aggression and swearing is a passionate individual who is very focused on getting it right. I think I’m the luckiest chef in the world and I love food so much that I never stop; I literally never stop. I went out last night in Sienna and I tasted rabbit prepared in a way that I thought was inspirational, and I will use that. I suppose I’m like a magpie: I love traveling all over the world and picking up these shiny little bits of magic that are put out in restaurants—not just food but service as well.
RBD: Is there anything you are particularly excited about right now?
GR: I recently came back from Vietnam where I was filming for my new show called Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape—it’s almost like Tony Bourdain meets Planet Earth. I thought about the gloabal domination of supermarkets because here I was in Vietnam living with the locals, and buying fresh vegetables and meat twice a day—in the morning for lunch and in the afternoon for dinner, spending 75 cents to a dollar per person per day. I cooked with no dairy—no cream and no butter—and everything was fantastically fresh. The experience was a huge eye opener. Sometimes when you’re traveling at this pace, you don’t take anything for granted but you forget what it’s like right when you’re at the very beginning of your career. I had a limited budget. It was a fascinating time because I was stripped of everything—from my exemplary knives to my chef’s jacket—and I was just there in tee shirts and shorts in 100 degrees, living locally, which I recommend to every chef in the world.
I always get asked about striving for the highest level of perfection and I say to other chefs, “Come out of your comfort zones. Become vulnerable. With the base of knowledge and excitement you’ve got about food, the level of creativity multiplies ten-fold the minute you become vulnerable because you act on instincts.” There’s a huge soul-searching dilemma going on when you haven’t got the most amazing chopping board, you haven’t got fresh ingredients arriving on your doorstep delivered by artisan producers, you haven’t got the most amazing baked bread twice a day, and nobody is making ravioli and tortellini for you: get out of your comfort zone and become self-sufficient!
After Vietnam, I went straight to Cambodia and that was seriously mind-blowing. It had nothing to do with Michelin Stars, Zagat, the Good Food Guide or food critics, and yet some of what was served in these villages was better than you could get in Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurants anywhere in the world—it was exquisite, I mean really exquisite.
RBD: Speaking of Michelin Stars: you have what is becoming an embarrassment of riches, no?
GR: I’m very lucky to have an amazing team. I suppose the criticism we come under is that I can’t be everywhere at once. Well, I’ve never portrayed that I cook in all of these restaurants. There are two restaurants bearing my name: Gordan Ramsay at Claridges, which means an awful lot to me, and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea. Next year we celebrate ten years at Claridges and we have so much talent behind it: from Angela Harnett to Mark Sargeant to Marcus Waring to Mark Askew to Claire Smith to Jake Hamilton—these are thoroughbreds who’ve been with me for ten years. When they leave the nest, it’s a natural level of progression where it becomes a rite of succession. It’s almost like in government in that you’re roosting the nest with food, and you’ve got peers and prodigies that are coming back to stamp out their own sort of uniqueness. What’s wrong with them going further afield? This level of succession has always been my forte: always, always.
RBD: Do you think it’s your passion that allows you to foster people to this level? I ask because I would think some chefs would be a little more selfish than you’ve been in supporting people to go out on their own?
GR: I’m an over-generous guy and so when you’re in the fold it’s anything and everything. I’ve always believed in sharing and the level of manners that my mum taught me from an early age. It makes no sense to compare chefs for their styles: I love Joel Robuchon; love what he’s done for formulaic menus, but I’ve got a different style of setting up a business and my menus are different. Clearly Robuchon has the same menu in Paris as in Tokyo as in New York as in London. What I want to do is to support the chefs that are driving my restaurants behind the scenes, backing me up for years. At some point, they’ve got to go out and take the next step on their own. I enjoy financially backing them—personally but quietly—and unfortunately that always gets misconstrued in the press because it’s said that another chef leaves Ramsay, but we know what goes on “hand on heart” behind the scenes. I know how important it is for these guys to strike out and become individual, and I’ve never been anything less than caring as a father figure to push them to the extreme. And I’m not done yet. That’s what I constantly tell myself. It’s not that I want to spend 16 hours a day behind a stove; I’ve done that! I’ve served my apprenticeship and I have the fascination of that next new discovery.
I have a series of new restaurants opening—the new Savoy Grill, which we’re all incredibly excited about; the Bread Street Kitchen in St. Paul’s Cathedral; and the restaurant in Borough Market opening up in September 2011 ahead of the Olympics.
RBD: Your energy is quite remarkable. To what do you attribute your verve?
GR: It’s a vibe for me: I’m more nervous when I stand still.
RBD: How has being a Scotsman made an impact on your sensibilities as a chef?
GR: Scotland, as you know, is not renowned for its phenomenal food! Great produce but sadly enough we don’t keep any of it for ourselves—we send it all abroad, which doesn’t make sense! I remember my early days in Paris when I was working for Guy Savoy and I’d see these amazing Scottish Langostines come through the door. The French were so arrogant they would be ripping the Scottish flag off the side of the box because they couldn’t quite believe all this produce was coming out of Scotland. I get it, because here was our country with a reputation for deep-fried Mars Bars and deep-fried pizza: it didn’t make sense. But think about it: hand-dived scallops from the west coast of Scotland were being shipped out to Paris. It was frustrating. Then when the venison arrived, it was like another stake in the ground. With fingers up to the French, I’d say, “Here we go—that’s three, four, five amazing kilos of produce that you haven’t got in your country.” So, yeah; I love that battle!
RBD: Do you think the drama of your career prepared you well for television?
GR: That’s a very good question. When you’re cooking at this stake and it’s under this level of pressure, you push the boundaries and, no disrespect, but there’s never going to be a time when you politely say, “Please be so kind as to pass me the bass!” When the shit hits the fan, it’s going to hit the fan or I’d be flipping burgers or dressing Caesar Salads while high-fiving everybody and running a chain of TGI’s! I’m not. I decided to go to the very, very top so I demand the best. In terms of the genre unfolding, there’s no script. If I give you seven identical ingredients, myself seven and Chloe seven, we’d come up with three different dishes: that’s the exciting thing about food. So chefs are notorious self-motivated insecure little fuckers: we’re always looking to please; looking for that big hug because we’re constantly striving to be the best! But when we are the best, we never realize we’re the best so we continue to be incredibly insecure!
RBD: People are always surprised at how nice you are in person compared to your television personae; is that something you set out to do or is it a natural process of the show?
GR: I’ve been in Marco White’s kitchen and Guy Savoy’s kitchen and Daniel Boulud’s kitchen, and I’ve seen the shit hit the fan. I have seen them rip somebody’s head off and absolutely cane someone and then 30 seconds later, I’ve seen them glide through the dining room to shake hands with their amazing customers—like a swan with such character, and amazing elegance and grace. Then they walk back through that door and if there’s something wrong with a dish—the ribeye is overcooked or the scallops are like rubber—then they blow off. I’ve learned from the best!
So if anyone tells you any different when they get to a certain age and condemn that level of ambitiousness by 35- or 40-year-old chefs, you must remember it’s how they made their names. God bless him, Daniel Boulud—one of the most amazing chefs in the world—I would not like to ever get on the wrong side of him. But very few chefs have that brutal honesty, whether they do it in front of the customer or in front of the camera. With me there’s no agenda. My biggest problem is the brutal honesty because if there’s something wrong there and then, I’m not going to wait to see if the cameras have stopped rolling before I let go: I let go. The unfortunate thing when you get into your 60’s and 70’s, these chefs then start to feel guilty about how mean they’ve been so they start philosophizing. I’m 43 years of age; I’m not going to start thinking, “You know what: we really shouldn’t get upset at sending an overcooked pigeon to the head inspector of Michelin! We should just relax and open a bottle of Bordeaux!” Uh, no! That doesn’t quite work out, now does it?
RBD: It feels to me like one of your greatest talents is nurturing people; does that come out of your nature, maybe your upbringing?
GR: From the early days when I was playing soccer, I was always the captain of the team so today’s role I play is a coach because I’m not done with cooking. I’m certainly not bored with it but I just need that level of stimulant to keep me excited about it and nothing gets me more excited than raw ingredients still, even though I look for the experience that will hit all of those notes on the back of the experience—exposure, what I’ve done for food, how many kings and queens I’ve cooked for and the amazing dinners I’ve prepared during my life. Last year was a seminal year cooking for Nelson Mandela twice in one year—once for his 90th birthday. That said, I never started cooking to become rich and famous in the first place. God forbid, if it all stops tomorrow, you’re still going to see me in my restaurant.
RBD: You’re fascinating to interview!
GR: I suppose I keep it real; unfortunately, the bigger you become in this industry, the more you get baby-sat because they see me as too fucking dangerous! I’ll admit I’m a naughty boy so I just watch as they crap themselves when they are afraid I’ll say something detrimental! I’m not that stupid! Also, you’ve made an effort to be here so if I can’t talk to you in an open and honest way, then I’d rather not do the interview!
RBD: Do you have a favorite dish? If so, why and who cooked it?
GR: There’s never been one dish on my agenda—there are thousands because I think there’s no such thing as the greatest soccer player in the world; there’s no such thing as the greatest chef in the world because it depends upon that particular time and temperament, and I never liked things to be set in stone—I like to keep on moving the goal post. One of the most sought-after dishes I’ve ever had in my entire life was when I sat with this family of eight on the river in Vietnam on this houseboat. It was braised pork belly done with fenugreek and star anise, and it was this amazing broth I just couldn’t, couldn’t stop eating. It was done with noodles, braised pork, their equivalent to sea spinach picked from the side of the river—it was mind blowing!
I’ve come across nothing along those lines in the last four months. In six-month’s time you ask me that and it will be something completely different. But, if I wanted to take something to bed, it would be my mum’s bread and butter pudding. When we grew up, she made it with plain bread, but as we became a little more successful, she changed to baguettes. Now she makes it with croissants—Mum’s gone up in life! She changes her recipe every decade! How cool is that? She went from bread to baguettes and now in the 21st-century she finally makes it with croissants. She volunteers for the WI, the Women’s Institute, which is an organization against domestic violence. Now when she makes it, she glazes it. We had no glaze in the first phase, then she went to brown sugar, now she has an apricot glaze! Isn’t it great that she makes it with croissants and an apricot glaze for these houses of single parents?
RBD: She’s been inspired by her boy?
GR: Oh yes! It’s traveling down; food is going back down!
RBD: Is she proud of you?
GR: Yeah! Well, she never, uh, overindulges. She comes to Claridges once every 18 months or so with her neighbors but it’s tough to get her out on the town because she’s obsessed with bingo! It’s nice in that she looked after me for twenty years of my life so now I look after her—I mean, I try! We bought her a house, I try to send her on holidays or on cruises, but she’s not easy to manage! She passed her driving test five years ago on the eleventh time! I said, “Mother, it would be a lot easier if I just get a driver for you!” She said no, so god bless her that she passed it! I got her a mini for Christmas, but I think it’s so terrific that she’s real and completely unspoiled.
GR: I suppose no matter what happens after me, after you, this place is still going to remain the same—it’s unchanged, it’s steeped in history and it’s something that’s being brought back and put on the map but it’s still part of the local village. What I love is that it’s not a hotel, it’s a retreat; this is a gem, ever involved as part of the community where they make those who live here as important as the visitors. They hold onto that ritual; they hold onto that service on Sunday. The village is part of them. That’s not fake or any sort of put-on; that’s real. I don’t know if you heard the church bells this morning? God bless them I was sleeping above those bells! No need for an alarm clock or for any of my three daughters to ring me this morning at 8 o’clock! I’m teasing, of course; that’s what’s so beautiful here. The personality of place is being nurtured and preserved. (For Ramsay’s three choices for rock-star chefs of the future, see my piece in Delta Sky magazine this month.)
This week’s #LetsBlogOff topic is “if money were no object…” This past weekend, I spent two delicious nights at a beautiful resort on the coast in Down East Maine, soaking in the scenic beauty of the surroundings and being pampered in so many ways that make me grateful to be a journalist who happens to write about amazing travel experiences that take place in spots just like Inn by the Sea, nestled into Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth. So you might think this post is going to go the way of bragging rights that I snag such experiences, right? Wrong, darlings: this is about something that took place at the Inn that I believe is at the true spirit of “if money were no object.”
Not only is Inn by the Sea one of the “greenest,” meaning environmentally-conscious, places I’ve stayed in a very long time, the property has its heart in the right place with its holiday philanthropy program called “The Giving Tree.” The afternoon I arrived, Rauni Kew, the publicist for Inn by the Sea, was hosting area school children who had visited to see the ornaments they’d made, each of which had been hung with care on a brightly lit tree in a corner of the lounge by a blazing fireplace. These local students had joined members of Thatcher Brook Center to make the ornaments, which are intended to entice the hotel staff, inn guests and community members to make generous donations of warm mittens, scarves, hats and/or Chap Stick, which will be given to the less fortunate people in the area.
The thing that caught my attention, a part of the program which is new to The Giving Tree this year, is that bookmarks decorated by Skillin School students were being sold for $10 each, the money from which will be used to purchase books for at-risk boys who have not had the opportunity to learn to read well. They gather to learn to read as part of a book club to which these books are donated. As a writer and someone who makes her living putting words on a page, I can think of no better way to spend money during this or any time of the year. Yep: I ponied up what I could afford and if anyone out there is looking for a good cause for their holiday giving, I’d say this is one.
My Spa Suite at Inn by the Sea
If money were no object, I’d make sure that every child the world over would have the best education possible so that the playing field was leveled and talent could really shine. When my ship comes in (and believe me, it will), I will be doing what I can to make sure this will happen! So in 2011, as I was roaming to my heart’s content along this beautiful slip of coastline in Maine, I gave the gift of a few books: it’s a start. I’m grateful for the program and the awareness it brought as I move through my own holiday celebrations with dear friends because it has reminded me to never take for granted that I have the good fortune of spending my time each and every day fumbling around with the written word. I would like to give this same gift to everyone who desires it from as young an age as possible.
Kudos to you, Inn by the Sea; I hope this call to action will inspire others to give as well and that your program will be a smashing success. If you want to donate funds to The Giving Tree, send them to Inn by the Sea, 40 Bowery Beach Rd, Cape Elizabeth, Maine 04107, c/o Rauni Kew (and tell her Roaming by Design sent you)! And, as I am want to do on Let’s Blog Off days, I leave you with a poem (today a Haiku): LUMINOSITY Dark harbinger sings. I halt his coaxing; turning to ravage the light. Saxon Henry Happy roaming on this #TravelTuesday, everyone! A full list of Lets Blog Off posts, and trust me, they are worth reading, can be found here.
Doesn't get sexier than Gio Ponti's Hotel Parco Dei Principi in Sorrento; tiles by Ceramica Bardelli
You might not think of ceramic tile as the perfect bedfellow, but that’s exactly what was on our minds in May when I participated in a panel with Bart Bettiga, the executive director of the National Tile Contractors Association, and Christine Abbate of Novita Communications in Las Vegas during the Hospitality Design show. Ceramic Tiles of Italy has been a forerunner in the concept of using nonporous surfacing materials throughout hospitality design projects in order to create cleaner, easier-to-maintain environments without sacrificing style for decades.
Many hotels have learned that hard surfaces like ceramic tile are perfect for common areas but so many venues, especially in the U.S., haven’t quite gotten the message that it’s great to take it into the bedroom. They taped our workshop and I thought it might be interesting to share the three-parter with you, especially with the subject of bed bugs being such a hot topic right now, one that won’t likely go away any time soon.
Is there a reason to be optimistic? No. There isn’t just one. There are many. The sun scaled my scrap of sky this morning; I am writing this, the open books on the smooth surface of my desk cupping each other like clam shells filled with briny juice and delicate pearls; I have a splendid legacy of authors who came before me, daring to break new ground with their pens, typewriters and keyboards; last and most exciting of all, I am about to make a pilgrimage to France to visit the town where one of my favorite writers, Marguerite Duras, penned some of her most dynamic works. I’ll be staying in the very building (which is now a hotel) in which she had an apartment in Trouville, a town in Normandy sluiced by brisk ocean waters and buffeted by maritime winds.
The beach at Trouville
Largely locked in her apartment at Les Roches Noires for days on end, Duras wrote The Malady of Death among other books. The prolific author penned plays, screenplays and novels; and directed films and theater, culled largely from her own material. One of her biographers, Laure Adler, wrote of her, “She became an excellent administrator of her own talent, constantly recycling Duras.” Le Monde called The Malady of Death “…an extended haiku on the meaning of love…” Duras’ writing was enigmatic in many cases: the film India Song, for example, holds dialogue that rolls along with a hypnotic repletion of the word “yes” spoken by a voice detached from human form. The word continually answers questions spoken by another voice sans body.
Claude Monet painted the Les Roches Noires
One of her best-known works outside of France is The Lover, which is said to be semi-autobiographical and based upon her childhood in Vietnam. In the book she wrote, “The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.” It has taken me years to make this trip happen, the seed of which was planted when I saw the film Cet Amour-Lá by Josée Dayan. The movie is based upon Duras’ years in Trouville when a young man named Yann Andréa Steiner came into her life. The film is a moving tribute to Duras’ appetite for the written word and her drive to get it on the page even when alcohol and cigarettes took their toll on her health. I share this determination to make a mark as a writer and this trip will be my heartfelt homage to her lust for language and determination to make her writing wholly unique.
Duras’ The Lover was made into a feature film of the same name
At the end of The War: A Memoir, Duras wrote, “It’s dark. I can’t see the words I’ve written any more. I can’t see anything except my motionless hand which has stopped writing to you.” She’s one of the brave writers who inspire me to continue working even when self-doubt and feelings of arrogance that what I have to say matters creep in. She’s one of the reasons I have been able to continue posting The Road to Promise, even when I wondered why I would. I can’t wait to breathe in the salty air from that swath of shoreline at the edge of the English Channel. “There are reasons to be optimistic?” “Yes.”
So, today’s #LetsBlogOff topic is “Are blogs as important as bloggers think they are?” Now what kind of question is that, Paul Anater, you instigator you? I can only seriously answer this in one way: “I have absolutely no idea whether anyone would consider my blogs important (Yes, plural; the amount of attention I’ve gotten from my internet platform has created a virtual monster!).” I’ve been thinking about the subject as I’ve traveled through Italy so some surprising things have come to mind as I’ve wondered what I might post.
Until yesterday, I was ensconced in the Tuscan countryside in a remarkable retreat called Castel Monastero that was a former nunnery. Several of the buildings surrounding the soulfully beautiful piazza date back to medieval times so strolling through the setting made me feel as if I’d stepped back in time. I sat in my room with the windows thrown open yesterday morning listening to Hildegard von Bingen, one of music’s most prolific contributors to the spiritual genre, while working on my memoir about the mission field, The Road to Promise. It was an incredible experience and I felt as if I’d transcended my humanity to reach into a realm I’d never touched before.
As I thought about von Bingen and all she represents to musicians and feminists as I zipped through the Tuscan countryside on the train to Milan yesterday afternoon, I realized that whether anyone thought her writings or musical compositions were important was likely a secondary concern if a consideration at all. She was simply involved in her deepest creative spirit, which is exactly what my blogs, particularly The Road to Promise, have given me—a depth of experience that is remarkable and invaluable to me spiritually and creatively.
Before I traveled to Tuscany, I spent three luscious days at CastaDiva Resort on Lago di Como. My duplex suite was in the tower of Villa Roccabruna, which was the original home of Giuditta Pasta, who became an important muse to the composer Vincenzo Bellini. Pasta’s first appearance in London was a flop, and yet legend has it that when Bellini—who was staying in a villa across from the soprano on Lake Como—heard her singing he rowed across the lake to find the woman with such an incredible voice. She was the inspiration for two of his greatest works, “Norma” and “La Sonnambula.” Of course, Pasta cared how others felt about her performances and it must have been crushing to have received such bad reviews, but it never stopped her from studying with better mentors and performing to great acclaim in some of the most important cultural capitals in Europe.
I feel a connection to such a story because I have tried for decades to secure a book contract for The Road to Promise so that I could share my experiences. Not only have I been unable to interest anyone in publishing it, I have received some scathing feedback along the way, one particular editor at the University of Nebraska Press telling me to “get over myself” on a sticky note affixed to the manuscript. The printed book proposal with his confetti of rejecting notes peppering its pages is in my war chest—the box of past challenges I have saved to keep me from giving up when the going gets tough! So blogging has given me the opportunity to do what I set out to do—send my thoughts and my ideas out into the world—and I truly appreciate all of you who have taken the time to read the material and to comment or support me in the varied ways that you have; it’s been a beautiful thing for me to experience.
So, for now, I am happy to continue to post every Wednesday so that I can share the journey I had, hoping that a publisher will recognize at some point that the material has merit. If not, maybe I’ll self-publish, but at the very least I will have been able—through the experience of posting online—to express myself in a way that’s rewarding, and that’s what makes my blogging important to me. Whether it’s of any consequence to anyone else, I’m not at all sure, but I’d like to think it is…
I’m now enjoying a stay at the incredible Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan, which at one time hosted celebrities the likes of Josephine Baker, Charlie Chaplin and Maria Callas. I leave you with a video of Callas’ version of Casta Diva, a song that Bellini wrote for Pasta to perform, as Callas was compared to Pasta early in her career. I have to say that the parallels in life, even in three such diverse locales as I have stayed over the past week, can be quite breathtaking when one is roaming by design!
I’m posting The Road to Promise a day early this week so that those of you who’ve seen last Wednesday’s post will have something new to read if you decide to stop in. Thanks again for sharing my journey, everyone. I have to say you all mean so very much to me and I look forward to many rewarding interactions to come! To see other #LetsBlogOff posts, click here and enjoy the ride!
This trip to Italy has been one that has brought me a mind-blowing loss for words. I’ll be putting a more comprehensive post together about my time here at Castel Monastero tomorrow. For now, I give you this tease from the former nunnery that dates back to a bygone time when church bells pealed across the rolling hills of a very different Toscana.
I took a tour of CastaDiva this morning with Silvia Ballerini and am wowed by the property. I’m guessing once you see this brief moment of beauty from my terrace and the above image by Paul Clemence, you will be, too! I’ll be writing several comprehensive pieces on the resort as the weeks move along but thought I’d give you a glimpse this evening before a glass of Prosecco calls me away from the computer! I spend a great deal of time in my life with this running through my mind: “I want to know what I want.” I can certainly say being able to spend even a few days in this little slice of heaven along Lake Como’s shores is on that list of wants. Speaking of heaven: I leave you with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s last stanza to “Ode to Heaven,” a poem he wrote while traveling through Italy: