I lived in France for two years before coming to the U.S. to attend graduate school at UGA. I taught English for a year in a middle school in the small town of Cluses in Haute Savoie, about 30 miles southeast of Geneva. The second year I was teaching in the English department at the Université de Nancy in the northeast, close to Strasbourg and the German border.
I had recently completed my B.A. in French at the University of Liverpool and so spoke the language with a certain fluency. Armed with my spoken French, I was able to make the most of my two years among the natives, and they were two of the happiest years of my life.
Although I never lived in Paris during my Gallic sojourn, I made a point of visiting often. This was a relatively easy thing to do since the French have a marvelous national rail system, the SNCF, and the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), a high-speed train that flies cross-country and delivers you in just a few hours to the City of Lights.
Paris has always held a certain fascination for me. In 1969, when I was seven, my sister and I were sent by our parents to spend a couple of weeks with my aunt and uncle who were then living in the northern Paris suburbs (Enghien-les-Bains). It was during this visit that I first went up the Eiffel Tower, first saw Sacré Coeur, and learned my first words of French.
Since then, I have been back to Paris on many occasions and each time my feet touch Parisian soil, I feel as if I’ve just walked through the gates of Heaven. I become Baudelaire’s flâneur walking the streets of my city taking in the sights, the sounds and the smells. It is indeed a special city and one which I would love to call home.
This paean to the French capital is my way of introducing a book that was brought to my attention recently.
You will remember from a recent blog entry that a couple of weeks ago I narrated the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke at the Christmas Candlelight Celebration held in Rome, Ga. Afterwards I was approached by a lady who did something I dread; she thrust a book into my hand.
Now you have to understand that, given what I do, one of the hazards of going out in public is that people give me books they think I should feature on Cover to Cover. I can attend an event and come away with an armful of books given to me by their authors who would love to be on the show.
While I admire these authors’ passion, I usually cannot consider most of the books for a number of reasons: they are self-published; they are poetry; they are of very limited appeal; or they are not of the necessary quality to recommend to the Cover to Cover audience.
The book I was given at the Rome event, however, was different. It’s about Paris!
Nancy Griffin, the lady who put the book in my hand, is not its author. She was simply bringing a book to my attention she thought I would be interested in. It’s by a Georgia author and concerns a city I know well.
The book is Tea with Sister Anna: A Paris Journal, (Golden Apple Press, 2005) by Rome visual and performance artist Susan Gilbert Harvey.
When their mother died in the 1990s, Susan and her siblings were faced with the task of disposing of their parents’ accumulated possessions. In the attic Susan had to unpack the last unopened container: Sister Anna’s steamer trunk. Sister Anna was Susan’s great aunt, sister to her maternal grandmother.
Anna McNulty Lester was born in Conway, SC, in 1862. The family moved to Rome, Ga., in 1868. Anna studied art and in 1887 she became head of the art department at Rome’s Shorter College. In 1897 she left for Paris where she studied art before returning to Rome in December 1898. She died of tuberculosis in Rome on October 17, 1900 at the age of 37.
In the journal and letters of her great aunt, Susan finds a kindred spirit. As she points out in the book’s first pages,
Anna taught art in women’s colleges, and her oils, watercolors, and painted china are family heirlooms. I construct art from junkyard objects, but despite our different media, Anna and I have things in common. We left Rome, Georgia, to attend colleges in Virginia, and sixty years after Anna packed this trunk to study life drawing in Paris, I enrolled in the Hollins Abroad-Paris program.Susan was an undergraduate at Hollins College in Virginia from where she graduated with a degree in art history in 1959. In 1957 she had traveled to Paris on the college study abroad program, and 50 years later, to mark the anniversary of the founding of that program, Susan published Tea with Sister Anna.
In 1998, having poured over Sister Anna’s journal and letters, Susan returned to Paris, in part to relive her year on the Hollins Abroad-Paris program, but also to retrace her great-aunt’s steps through Montparnasse, find her boarding houses and studios, and thus connect with her spirit.
In Tea with Sister Anna, which Susan points out is a work of creative non-fiction, she interlaces her life and experience of Paris in the late 20th century with those of Sister Anna almost a century before. She uses many of Sister Anna’s letters in the book as well as many of her own, written home in 1957, which her mother had kept.
Sister Anna’s letters paint a wonderful picture of fin-de-siècle Paris, and Susan Harvey’s story is a paean not just to the eternal enchantment of Paris, but also to the creative spirit and the women who possess it.
[I always welcome your comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.]