XXXIX – The Blogger in Zürich

Villa WesendonckWe’re in Zürich for a few days on our way back to Los Angeles. I’ve been here before a few times — twice as a researcher and writer for travel guidebooks — so it’s not a city I view as alien to me. In fact, despite its apparent bourgeois smugness — the flawless national and cantonal flags everywhere, the opulence of the shops on the immutable Bahnhofstrasse, the blue trams silently gliding along as if the streets were made of soft Alpine waters — it is a city I’ve always liked since my first visit at the age of sixteen. Then, if not now, it struck me, a child of the wild Americas, as the epitome of European charm and order. But never before had I been to the Villa Wesendonck, pictured here. Built as a private residence, it is now the site of the outstanding Museum Rietberg, devoted to the arts of Asia and other parts of the world. In the late 1850s, the villa and the surrounding park served as the setting for Richard Wagner’s liaison with the poet Mathilde Wesendonck. Her husband, Otto, a wealthy industrialist, had extended Wagner and his wife an invitation to stay in a cottage — the Villa Schönberg — on the villa’s grounds, and Wagner, eternal fugitive, had gladly accepted. He named it his “Asyl,” and there, in the peaceful land of Switzerland and with the hospitality of a generous patron, the great composer began to work on Tristan und Isolde. We ignore the exact nature of Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendock’s friendship, but we at least have the passionate Wesendonck Lieder,  in which he set to music five of her poems. In the text of the second song, “Stehe still,” she writes: “So I, in sweet oblivion, / May take full measure of my joy; / See bliss within another’s eyes, / Immerse my soul within another’s, / Another’s being that mirrors mine; / An intimation that hope’s goal is near.” The poem, of course, is better in the German original, but even this awkward version still conveys the amorous loftiness that may have in the hearts of Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck, who dwelled near each other in a peaceful villa not far from a quiet lake in the middle of the nineteenth century.

In this city in the heart of Europe, just about to return home, I’ve been thinking of my own Vidauds, the subject of this laborious blog. Some of the most interesting among them were also born and lived in those remote decades. Some crossed the Atlantic many times. Some, like Wagner and Wesendonck, must surely have loved other bodies and minds. And then I despair at coldness of my treatment of their spectral lives. How can I even think of retrieving them for the past without being able to know their hearts? Should I simply discard this silly little blog and imagine them — Adolphe, Charlotte, María, Alberto, Severo, Fanny, even the older Anne-Julienne and Julien Michel, plus the elusive François V. du D. de B. — not as silly little names stuck in the twigs of the family tree, but as full-blown figures who may live again in the realm of fiction? As I approach the biblically sounding fortieth post, it may well be time for to put an end to this relentlessly equivocal botany — to turn, as it were, a new leaf — and write a novel, where truth resides.

XXXVIII – The Blogger in Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock, 2A brief sojourn in Jerusalem. I’d never been here before, but I’m not the first descendant of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne to have made his way to the holy city. (More on that pilgrim in a minute.) Jim and I arrived in Tel Aviv, our first stop, on the first day of Chanukah — a fortunate coincidence that allowed us to eat at least one of the traditional jelly doughnuts almost every day, and participate in the ritual lighting of the menorah on two different evenings at our hotels — a wonderfully renovated Bauhaus edifice on Tel Aviv’s Boulevard Rothschild, and a mansion from the British-mandate era in Jerusalem’s German Colony. We put on our skullcaps and, guided by our kind hosts, pronounced some Hebrew words, including “Amen,” and even lit some candles. It felt lovely to me, a non-Jew, because of the intimate strangeness of it all, and because the holiday seems so mellow compared to the frenzied spirit of Christmas in the United States. A non-Christian, I nevertheless enjoyed seeing some of the places linked to the religion I grew up with — from the childlike Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was part of a tour around Palestine we took last Saturday, to the lugubrious Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. There, in a cavelike enclosure, I stood in the sole company of a nun kneeling by the silent grave from which Jesus is said to have resurrected. And just this morning, very early, I made my way up to the otherworldly Dome of the Rock, from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. It was cold and windy and few people were there — just a small group of American tourists, plus other visitors of indeterminate provenance escorted by men carrying machine guns. It was somewhat disconcerting when a group of young men, custodians of the splendid golden dome, began loudly and relentlessly to recite “Allahu akbar!” A non-Muslim, I wasn’t sure how to read those famous words in that particular setting. The skies had turned gray and it had started to rain.

Jesus famously proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world; my Jerusalem, by contrast, is emphatically terrestrial. After taking numerous selfies, guided by Google Maps, I threaded my way in the cold rain — an unexpected baptism of sorts, as I had no umbrella — to the Via Dolorosa. There, where Jesus purportedly suffered his agony, I felt virtually nothing. Yet I recalled with pleasure the Hebrew inflections of one of our Jerusalem guides, Paul, a handsome young man from Tel Aviv — his protracted pronunciation of Dologhrohza — and I relished the orientalist proclivities of the an ancient-looking advertisement placed above the trilingual street sign: “Hamedian Gallery / Specialized in old Russian icons / old Oriental carpets, old jewellery / & antiques / Via Dolorosa 36.” I remembered too our tour of Palestine on Saturday. After stops in Ramallah and Jericho, we were taken to the very spot on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. Wearing white robes, pilgrims from Nigeria immersed themselves in the muddy waters, just a few feet from the country of Jordan, on the other bank. There too, according to my mother, Alberto Vidaud Centeno, my grandmother’s cousin whom everyone knew as Bebé, had once donned a white robe and happily walked into the river to commemorate his Christian faith. He was a religious man, but he was also an indefatigable traveler who loved our vast mysterious planet. Many years before me, pious and curious Bebé had surely wandered in the same streets of the Old City where I now walked. If there’s a heaven, there’s no doubt in my mind Bebé is there. Regardless, blessed are the adventurous, for theirs is the kingdom of this world.

XXXVII – To Have Paris

Picasso - FacebookSince Friday, 13 November 2015, when bombs exploded in different parts of the city, the world of cyberspace has been crying for Paris. In these three weeks I too have felt a number of emotions, but none perhaps stronger than wonderment. Why is the suffering of Paris such a source of digital tears, while the world remains nonplussed about the terrorized inhabitants of Baghdad or Beirut, and doesn’t appear to care much, if at all, for the passengers of the Russian plane that broke apart over the Sinai Peninsula? Very few people posted the cedars of Lebanon on Facebook or tweeted about the lost citizens of St. Petersburg, but we made the French flag take over the web as if we were all children of Casablanca who would always have, or want to have, Paris. I confess I too posted my own tragic version of the thing: a weeping woman from the Musée Picasso, photographed by me on a cold rainy afternoon last December, now recast urbi et orbi in glorious digital tricolor courtesy of Mr. Zuckerberg & Co. Then it all felt quite indiscreet and charmless — sentimental jamboree — and I took it down in less than twenty-four hours.

Gué - Dame blanche, 2But now, dear reader, I give you this other image — not that it amounts to much either. In my search for my own Paris to mourn, I remembered a long-dead character in the family tree, Julien-Michel Gué, who was the youngest sibling of my fourth great-grandmother, Anne-Julienne Gué. Like his six older brothers and sisters, Julien-Michel was born in Saint-Domingue (in July 1789, no less) but, after the violent death of his father, the boy, along with the rest of the family, “returned” to France and settled in Bordeaux. He was just a child at the time, so I wonder whether as an adult he ever thought of his native island, or whether, like France generally did through much of the nineteenth century, he consigned the old remote colony to oblivion. Three of his brothers visited Saint-Domingue just a few years after their departure, but we have no evidence to suggest Julien-Michel ever did. An artist, as I wrote year in Paris, he studied with David and was a runner-up for the Prix de Rome in 1815. He also traveled quite a bit through other parts of Europe, it seems, accompanying Victor Hugo on an Alpine journey… But on that Friday three weeks ago when bombs exploded throughout Paris, I kept thinking of the image posted here, which I had found months earlier on the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It’s an engraving of the set for the first act of La Dame blanche, the opéra-comique by François-Adrien Boieldieu, which Julien-Michel designed apparently for its premiere at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris in 1825. Based loosely on several works by Sir Walter Scott, the opera centers on a mysterious Scottish castle and features a spectral figure known, the eponymous White Lady… The work was an enormous success for much of the nineteenth century, and there are a couple of modern recordings, including one conducted by Marc Minkowski — but it wouldn’t be farfetched to dismiss the whole thing as silly Romantic stuff. Yet, for me, three weeks ago, viewing Paris from a distance of several thousand miles, the little engraving was my pleasurable link to the wounded city. As it turns out, the work’s libretto was written by Eugène Scribe, who for me, back in the twentieth century when I spent much time in the city, was merely the address — 11, rue Scribe, near the Opéra — of the bustling American Express office, now gone, where I picked up my mail almost every morning… Whoa, such preternatural convergences between Paris and moi…

Such silly romantic reveries, really, this digital transit of mine across the worldwide web and through my fading memories. Julien-Michel Gué, despite his colonial origins and provincial ties, appears to have settled in Paris for good. It was, after all, the capital of the nineteenth century, and there I imagine he imagined he could have the life he wanted. He died on 13 December 1843 and is buried in the city. In fact, I think I saw an online image of his Parisian gravestone just a few weeks ago, but now that too is gone — or maybe I imagined it. There, dear reader, in the realm of imagination, is a key to why many of us were moved by the events of 13 November. We can’t have anything forever; not even Paris is immortal. When terror reigns in the city, we sense the foretelling of our own deaths. Morbidly, we see ourselves mourning own inevitable dispossession.