First Place | Nonfiction Writing Contest XLVII | 2019


John Baskin ​of ​Wilmingt​​on, Ohio for "In Search of Leo"

Baskin will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.

In Search of Leo

By John Baskin


The fast train from Paris to Bordeaux hurtles south, through farming country disguised as southwest Ohio, a wide swath of France minus its picture postcards. The first-time American visitor, gazing across these unremarkable vistas, wonders if he has been victimized by the Ministry of Culture; where is France? Then somewhere below Poitiers, the country begins to redeem itself. The tiled rooftops contrast agreeably with the autumn colors, as though the villages were observing design specifications, and then we’re in wine country, and the conductor announces our destination: the Bordeaux Saint-Jean station (pronounced “Bore-doughsanjohn”).

I find a cabbie and say, “Nous allons á rue de Lurbe, numéro onze.” Eleven Lurbe Street.

“Comment?” he says.

“Rue de Lurbe,” I repeat. How many ways to say it? But I have forgotten; I am in the south now.

“Ah,” he says. “LURBAH.”

And: “ONZAH.”

I might be in South Carolina.

Then we’re off, down the broad avenue that fronts the Garonne, which bends in a gentle concave arc around the city. Bordeaux presents its eighteenth century self elegantly, with almost none of the modern intrusions to which we Americans are accustomed. The cabbie whips past the grand plaza, Place de la Bourse (rough translation: “Square of the Wallet,” which is fitting as the Chamber of Commerce is here) and across from it, on the river, the water mirror—a huge reflecting pool covered by less than an inch of water that creates its own fog and has to be seen to be believed.

The eye is relieved by the cabbie plunging into the old city and quickly turning into rue de Lurbe (“LurBAH”), a narrow little residential street. And so we have arrived. We’re early to meet our friend—and host—Chris, so Marcy and I wander around the corner in search of lunch. We find a tiny restaurant so small it seems we have entered someone’s kitchen by mistake, the proprietors too polite to tell us, giving us, instead, a salmon salad that may have been their own lunch.

The patron is young and blond, very affable as we navigate the treacherous shoals of language. Oddly, no one else appears for lunch, although people constantly come in and out to chat, furthering the notion that we’re in someone’s house. One of the arrivals, whose name is Gérard, extends the conversation by speaking fluent English, which, he says, he learned from his girlfriend, an English teacher. “So, you see,” he says, “I had no choice. It was put upon me.”

Gérard explains the collection of surfer paintings on the wall near us as belonging to the patron, who is an avid surfer. I had no idea that the French surfed.

“There is surfing in France?” I ask, surprised.

“In July, one can smell sunscreen and Orangina all the way from the Bay of Biscay. There is a place south of here called Hossegor. It is known for some of the best surfing in the world. The surf is—how do you say in America, sick?—and the only problem is that now everyone knows it.” He pats the patron on the back. “The visiting surfers are mostly gone now that winter is coming, and my friend is happy because he has his beaches back.”

“What’s the French word for ‘surf?’” I ask him.

“Suehrfa,” he says, smiling broadly. “S-U-R-F.”

“Surf,” I say.

“SUEHRFA,” he says. “With just a little piece of the ‘r.’”

The French are very proprietary with their alphabet. It looks the same as ours but mostly isn’t. The French “r” sound is especially bedeviling. Alice Kaplan in French Lessons said that the ‘r’ she arrived with in France had come over with her from Minnesota. It sounded like cement overshoes, she said, “like wearing wooden clogs in a cathedral.”

I should stay here in this café, I thought, and study their language. It would be the perfect environment, here with these agreeable fellows, their hearty accents marching in and out of the place. But while the salmon salad was good, the menu was limiting. And I would probably have to learn how to surf.

Upon our return to rue de Lurbe, Chris is waiting in the street, ebullient as always, a grand host who, among his other duties, seems to have taken it upon himself to provide splendid visiting places for his friends and acquaintances. He and Lori have lived in Beijing and London, all over the United States, and visited most every place between. For them, home is where the hat is.

Their invitation to Bordeaux came exactly a year after my friend Leo Bretholz died at 93. Leo had ended the war in the Limousin region, just slightly to the northeast, where he spent the latter part of the war with the French Résistance. He’d nearly died at Oradour, where the Germans massacred the entire town then razed it, and—because of a hernia left untreated since the beginning of the war—he dropped unconscious in the middle of Limoges where he was saved by the intervention of a Catholic sister who risked her own life to shelter him.

Leo and I had talked about making one of what he liked to call his “memory trips” back here, but we didn’t get around to it, so in my workaday heart I was now out to follow Leo’s footsteps, a kind of memorial to one of the great characters I had known. My friend Chris would ground me in modern-day Bordeaux, even as I wandered historically backward.

On my first day, he and I set off to find La Chapon Fin, the restaurant where at the outbreak of World War II deputies of the National Assembly sat debating the merits of the local vintages as the country descended deeper into chaos. It was a short walk from rue de Lurbe and, as it was the middle of the afternoon we found it empty, watched over by one of the staff who invited us in to look around. Its dining area is nestled impressively up against a grotto, as though the building backed against a huge natural outcropping and one were dining in a cave. Its wine list is legendary, and its menu, offering, say, civet of hare (a 500-year-old dish of whole jackrabbit cut into pieces, then cooked for days in wine thickened with blood and liver) is not for the casual appetite.

The great New Yorker correspondent A.J. Liebling (an epicure of note who would have been deterred by neither the wine list nor the civet of hare), made his way to Bordeaux just after the government-in-exile had arrived after fleeing Paris. He found the piano player from Harry’s New York Bar in Paris sleeping on a café terrace, his head on the table. Anthony Biddle, the envoy to the French government, was keeping Washington up-to-date (as though such a thing were possible), which led Liebling to write, “his dispatches must have read like a play-by-play of a man falling downstairs.”

There was an air of defeat over most of France, and old Marshal Pétain tottered onto the national stage with the manipulative Pierre Laval on his knee like puppet, only in this instance the puppet would control the puppeteer, a defeatist and a collabo presiding over the French, who had lost the war with the Germans and were virtually in a civil war with themselves.

On our way to the riverfront, we walked through the huge plaza with the monument to the Girondins, one of Bordeaux’s landmarks. The Girondins were the bourgeois moderates in the National Assembly during the French Revolution whose essential crime was, well, being moderate. In France’s great period of blood-letting, they were convicted of being counter-revolutionary and twenty-two of them were executed. It’s a spectacular piece of statuary, although the personal sacrifice seems inflationary. The Girondins live on, though, as Bordeaux’s professional football team; having given up their historical moderation, they’re now one of the most successful clubs in France.

In my mind’s eye, of course, I saw not the old Girondins but the convoy of automobiles piled into the plaza in 1940 when Liebling was here, most of them filled with sleeping people who’d fled the German army marching into Paris. That was the shambles of 1940, as France descended into its dark war years. And the defeat was announced in Bordeaux by the make-believe government that chose as its head creaky old Marshal Pétain, whose last burst of energy had occurred at Verdun a quarter of a century before. It was in Bordeaux that Pétain famously said, Je fais à la France le don de ma personne—“I donate my person to France”—which made him sound as if he’d just given his body to science. That wasn’t entirely incorrect, for when Pétain’s government trucked itself momentarily off to Vichy, the little spa town that became France’s wartime capital, the ideals of the country were experimented upon for the duration.

Bordeaux, being a tenth the size of Paris, has an inviting walking scale, especially in the old city with its pedestrian streets served largely by the city’s new tram system, which runs quietly along with no visible means of power. There’s an inventive underground supply that works only when the train is directly above it, all of it a far distance from Bordeaux’s old nineteenth-century horse-drawn trams when drivers used bugles to clear the way.

The trams have allowed some of Bordeaux’s major streets to become pedestrian-only where the largest danger comes from dogs, bicyclists, and sudden stops by window-shoppers. One correspondent wrote of stepping in what he thought was merde de chien only to discover upon closer inspection that it was—thanks to Bordeaux’s upscale sensibilities—foie gras. (“A moment of ripe human narrative,” he called it.) It’s a great walking city and one can cover most of it on foot; plazas both large and small crop up everywhere to offer respite, and there’s always the tram. It is, according to my favorite guidebook designation, “a hallucinatory city of long flat vistas tinted in a thousand nuances of white, from golden cream to unwashed tennis socks.”

• • •

We’re up early on Sunday to catch the direct train to Limoges. There, the Limoges station might be the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen. It’s a wonderful Neo-Byzantine pile with a high clock tower, open and spacious under its great dome, one of the last monumental stations built in France.

We stow our luggage in a cab out front, get in, and when I tell the driver our address, he begins to laugh.

“Avenue du Général de Gaulle?” I say again.

“Oui,” he says, pointing to the street just below the station. We are about two hundred yards from our hotel.

Villa 13 is unusual in that it’s a building of suites with no one on the premises but the guests. To get in, one must go to the shop next door and rouse the concierge, who doubles as a shoe salesman. It’s a great apartment, large, with a small kitchen and a wonderful spacious bath.

We’re here for Leo, though, because Limoges was where he spent his last years in Europe, escaping death another two or three times. He lived with a kindly widow whose home was a kind of halfway house for Résistance fighters, Jews, and other flotsam of the war who slept in her attic or contorted themselves nightly into one of her old armchairs. He worked for a rabbi who supplied false identification papers to the endangered who, by that time, made up half of France. Leo delivered the papers here and there, including a local orphanage where the children made him think of his sisters, already dead in the deportations. “I whispered tiny prayers to a distant, apparently preoccupied God,” he would write.

A few days after the Normandy invasion in 1944, Leo headed out of Limoges to the little farming community of Oradour-sur-Glane. He was delivering false identity papers to Jews being sheltered by farmers in the countryside. Then he saw, on the road beside the tracks, a German unit. Get away, the voice in his head commanded. He didn’t know where they were going, only that he and the Germans were going in the same direction. At the station before Oradour, he got off and hitchhiked back to Limoges. He learned of the village massacre the next day.

On Monday morning, Marcy and I head out to Oradour, driven by a phlegmatic old Limousin cabbie whose English matched my French, or as the writer of the 1886 travel book Roughing It from California through France put it, “He murdered English and I French.” The village is only about a dozen miles from Limoges and once again I find the landscape disarmingly like Ohio in deep autumn. Soon we’re off the main highway, taken to Oradour by a country road winding through woods and hayfields and, finally, across the Glane itself.

The cabbie parks near the museum, which is nowadays the formal entrance to the village. “Nous nous dépechons,” I tell him—We’ll not take long. He seems to understand, dismissing us gallantly with a wave of his hand. “Prends ton temps,” he says—Take your time—off to find himself lunch.

The museum lies at the foot of the hill under the old village. It’s a good museum, thoughtfully assembled and laid out so that the entire war is seen behind this specific place and the incomprehensible events of June 10, 1944. In one exhibit, the larger narrative of the war narrows to the moment when M. Jean Pallier returns to Oradour to find his wife and children burned to death. “I couldn’t take anymore and staggered away like a drunkard,” he says.

The reasons for the destruction of the village were lost in the rising tensions after the Normandy invasion, which had occurred four days before. Soldiers belonging to the Das Reich regiment, heading north to help staunch the invasion, was responsible for the atrocity, but why such violent—and criminal—orders were given has never been entirely clear.

Only the events of the day itself were clear: When the hundred or so soldiers came into the village, the people feared nothing more than an identity check. But then the Germans locked the women and children in the church, and the men were taken off to several barns and garages. The men were machine-gunned, and the bodies covered with straw and kindling and set afire. The women were treated similarly. Only six of the men survived, saved by the bodies of other men who fell on them. Subsequently, they crawled away from the flames and hid in some rabbit hutches. The survivors said the soldiers howled as they began to shoot.

• • •

On this late October Monday, there are few people in the museum and no one on the path to the village. The entrance to the village is startling; one opens a door and is immediately on a country lane that goes gradually uphill, between stone walls, for fifty yards or so. Then the skeletal remains of the village gradually appear. The path is marked only by a sign on a tree: Silence. And there are no sounds, as if even nature paused for what happened here. I hear no wind, no birds, no voices. We follow the old tram tracks down the village’s main street and finally see three or four other people moving solemnly about.

In the 1930s, there were a few hundred people living in Oradour, although it was the market town for the surrounding farms and its more than four dozen hamlets. If there was any charm to it, it was the nature of its stone buildings clustered neatly on the brow of the valley. Today, the village gives off an aspect of contradiction: as its ruined shops and houses have weathered, they’ve gained an appearance that makes the whole of it seem almost like a mammoth piece of installed art. The careful swatches of green lawn in and around the remains further this notion. “It is almost as if the ruins mock the very effort of this particular commemoration,” wrote Sarah Farmer in her good study, Martyred Village, “as if their progressive erosion reveals the impossibility of fixing both time and memory.”

But this is no pastoral retreat. If one came into the village without first going through the Centre de la Mémoire, one might not know that this inconspicuous place has become unique in all of Europe, but there’s such gravity to Oradour’s silence. More often than not, silence is observed here, even when hundreds of people are walking in the ruins. Any sensitive visitor knows instinctively that this was no ordinary fire. The carefully arranged artifacts left—the rusty sewing machine in one of the houses on the rue Emile Desourteaux, the smashed stroller in the church, the twisted hulks of farm equipment—suggest something sinister.

Walking through the center of the village, we pass Oradour’s most famous icon, the old Peugeot said to be the doctor’s car. Its rounded shape makes it appear as though it were holding itself against some threat, and with the passage of so much time, it is barely a car. The rims are missing from the front tires, and it sits on the axle itself which cants the body so that it appears to be sinking into the ground. It might be a fossil sunken back into its own time.

Those of us who have read about Oradour know the specifics; standing in the ruins of the village church, we know that twenty small children tried to find shelter behind the altar and died from the smoke and flames, that two small children were found in the confessional box, shot in the head. Afterward there was a crisis of faith among some of those who survived: how could God allow women and children to die in, of all places, a church? (Or as my friend Leo said during the war in one of his many conversations with God, “I recognize you, but you haven’t been around lately.”)

Outside of the church, Marcy stopped. Not twenty feet from the door was a grand old oak tree. “It was here. It saw it all,” she said. She picked up a small handful of acorns and put them in her purse to take home to Ohio. “I’ll plant one in my yard as a memorial. An Ohio memorial to Oradour.”

From there, we walk to the cemetery. The crypt, originally built for the remains of the victims, is now a museum of artifacts; marble display cases are filled with the objects found in the desolation. They are everyday articles—pocket watches, eye glasses, belt buckles, keys, scissors and thimbles—but the aesthetic arrangements make them into a somber art, like the village itself has become an exhibit. “It’s the everyday objects that grab at people’s hearts,” one of the visitors said.

As hard as it is to imagine the events of June 10, it is equally difficult to imagine the time afterward. Because many children from the outlying hamlets were attending school in Oradour, many of these places had no surviving children. Of the 642 people who died, 205 were children. Sometime after, the doctor recalled asking a woman from one of the outlying places about her medical history and she said, “I had six children, they were burned alive at Oradour.”

Even in the new town, there was mourning for more than a decade. In this time, there were no public gatherings, and there were few children. The ones who survived were sometimes required to wear only black. There were girls in the village who did not wear any colorful clothing until after they were married. Social life in Oradour didn’t return until the 1960s, and only in the middle of that decade were there enough boys in Oradour to field a soccer team.

I think of walking into the new village, which is adjacent, but my French isn’t good enough to have any sustained conversation, and touring it seems a kind of affront: what real conversation could possibly be had in any language? The martyred village must appear to the new villagers as a kind of overbearing relative, constantly arriving unbidden and transmuting all activities to itself.

• • •

It’s a perfect autumn day in old Oradour. The blue sky cradles the ruins, an inverted bowl over us. Souviens-toi, reads the sign at the entrance to the village—Remember. It’s the familiar form of the imperative, rather than the more formal souvenez-vous. Is it because tragedy, only a step away, makes us all made familiar to one another?

Our cabbie awaits at the appointed spot. “Not many Americans come here,” he tells us on the way back to Limoges. When I ask why, he says, simply, “Too far.” He drops us in the center of town where we find a café and for a late lunch. It seems an immeasurable luxury after what we’ve seen.

Leo lived not far from the square where we’re sitting, on rue de Rochechouart. The widow Bergeot’s house is still there, but now it has a red door, which I choose to see as a salute to Leo’s time there. He was living there when he jumped off the train to Oradour, returning to learn that all those on the train had been killed by the Germans. And he was living here when he collapsed in a nearby square and nearly died from his strangulated hernia, untreated since he fled a Belgian hospital at the onset of the war in 1940.

Part of his intestine protruded through the lining, strangulated, and the pain seared him. He heard a voice. “Trop de vin?” it said—Too much wine?

“No, no, Madame,” Leo said, “If that were only so…”

The woman was wearing a Red Cross cape, and when he tried to wave her away, she called an ambulance. Afterward, what he remembered most was not his fear of being found out but the solace of the ether. The pain was so strong and yet he was slipping away from it. “The wonderful sinking feeling!” he told me.

The woman who had saved him was a nun named Sister Jeanne d’Arc. She came into his room and adjusted the warm brick at his feet. She had to know of the secret under his hospital gown: the circumcision.

What now? He wondered.

“You have nothing to fear,” she said.

Could he believe her? Had not the world been revealed as a fearful place? But she was true to her word, and Leo was out of the hospital in mid-August when Limoges was liberated. First, the Allies dropped leaflets over the city saying that they were headed for Paris. “It felt like confetti falling on New Year’s Eve,” Leo wrote. He was in the town center when the Maquisards poured in. They were, he said, a disheveled torrent of rag-tag humanity, taking over the German garrison beside the train station, and marching several hundred Germans through the town. The townspeople jeered and spit, and Leo recalled that some of them yelled, “Remember Oradour!”

Sitting tranquilly under a flawless autumn sky in the center of Limoges, it is difficult to reconcile the present moment with the history I know. Leo said that when Oradour burned, you could see the smoke from Limoges. That night, stirred by the sound of the late trains, I dreamed of the dogs who survived the massacre, running forlornly in the ruins of the village, trying to find their owners who, belonging now to history, were not to be found.

• • •

The next morning, we’re off to Paris on the fast train, flashing through sedate little towns pressed so closely against the tracks that the residents must be governed by the vibration. We’re deeper in autumn now, the color more muted. Many of the rural towns are flush with backyard woodpiles. When we slow for stops, we can peer into windows, down leafy avenues, and acquire the wonderful contrast between France’s modernity and its ancient self. It preserves the latter wonderfully while creating a present so bleakly done it’s difficult to know the message here: is the past an affront, kept intact only for the tourists? “Everything looks as if it were built five hundred years ago or in the 1970s,” Marcy says.

We get off at the Austerlitz station on the Left Bank and find a cab that quickly deposits us at the Hôtel de Suede, a serene little hotel on the rue Vaneau, in the middle of the 7th Arrondissement—the middle of the Left Bank, actually, and within walking distance of all of it. I chose it because rue Vaneau is where the great French writer, André Gide, was living when he died. Upon his final leave-taking at age 81, he said, “If anyone asks me a question, make sure I am conscious before you let me reply.” Thus, said The New Yorker, “did he protect his genius for lucid responsibility as his final, most valued earthly possession.”

My choices were led—as they often are—by a dubious proximity to the odd fact. On my first trip to Paris, I found the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, once Oscar Wilde’s residence. I thought that perhaps such distant proximity might help me become more epigrammatic, but I was mistaken. Faced with the splendid visual immensity of Paris, I could only try not to walk into a lamppost. And even the old-fashioned lamps, in their infinity of styles, were attractions themselves. “Paris gives good lamppost,” an inspired blogger wrote recently.

I want Marcy to see everything but because it is already mid-week and we leave on Friday, we’ll do Paris abbreviated. We’re within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, which is both a Parisian cliché and one of the world’s great monuments, but it has to be seen to be believed. There’s a majesty to both its design and scale, although when it was first built, it was widely vilified. (My favorite disparagement came when one critic called it le grand suppositoire.) Before the end of the last century, it was considered by design experts as one of the three most recognizable images in the world. (The other two were Mickey Mouse’s ears and Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat.)

Parisians are a bit cynical about it, perhaps because it’s such a great looming presence. (The concierge at the Hôtel de Suede says, upon our return, “You air most welcome to take eet home with you.”) Not long after the tower was built, Guy de Maupaussant began having lunch in its panoramic restaurant, saying it was the only place in town where you didn’t have to see the tower.

Mostly, we walk, quickly mindful as to how pedestrians crossing the grand intersections are regarded as sport. (A British ex-pat, Stephen Clarke, described crossing Paris intersections as “flying in a pheasant costume in front of a line of men with shotguns.”) Walking down the Champ de Mars and through Les Invalides, I soon see why my friend and Bordeaux host, Chris, felt Paris’s monumental quality—its huge buildings, grand statues, and immense squares—a bit off-putting. Finally, though, I recognize that the genius of Paris is in this epic quality: Paris itself is a statement of the state’s ambition.

We walk deeper in the 7th Arrondissement, to the top of rue de Bac. I want to find my old hotel, the Nevers, and we do, only it’s shuttered, its front pasted sadly with posters. It was a curiosity of a lodging, a one-time nunnery of eight or nine small rooms, stairs steep enough to stymie a mountain goat—no elevator—and I once had a room in which the bath was so small that when I turned on the shower I inadvertently sprayed the bed. As one of its guests wrote, “This should be a terrible hotel but I love it.” And so did I. The staff was friendly and helpful, and once, when I was in bed reading, one of them came in, unannounced, to water the geraniums in the window boxes, then brought me a croissant for the intrusion.

The hotel was at a little bend in the rue de Bac, amidst a block of small shops and cafés, and at night the automobile traffic dwindled away, leaving only the companionable sound of footsteps. I once sat in the open window and watched the sanitary workers, blocked from their duties by a small car, pick it up and deposit it on the sidewalk. The street winds its way down to the Seine, emptying itself just between the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, the perfect geographical lodestone for someone as directionally-challenged as myself. In addition to being a street of wonderful variety, it always lets you know where you are.

After lunch, we head down to the deportation memorial on the eastern tip of Île de la Cité, behind Notre-Dame Cathedral. It’s our last stop in honor of our friend Leo, who in 1942 was sent out of Paris to Auschwitz, making a miraculous escape. It’s an impressive monument, built on the site of a former morgue. (It displayed those unfortunates who’d been pulled out of the Seine or turned up in some other odd-lot circumstance. They were seen behind glass, the idea being that viewers might identify the bodies. Instead, the morgue became a freak show drawing thousands of spectators, and the morgue itself was listed in all the guidebooks.) There’s a small park in front, and the monument is buried at the tip of the island, a kind of bunker designed to give the viewer something of the experience of being shuffled off into the unknown. Dimly lit and claustrophobic, its spiked gates and restricted perspectives does this powerfully. It’s a safe assumption that thousands of tourists headed for the cathedral walk past the monument without seeing it.

When Leo leaped off the train and made his way back to his Aunt Erna’s apartment in the 11th arrondissement, he was about a twenty-minute walk north of the deportation memorial. Erna knew a man who was expert in the forgery of papers, and he gave Leo a new identity: Marcel Dumont.

“How did you choose such a name?” Leo asked him.

”You look like a Dumont,” the forger said.

And he was off to the south of France, where he spent two-and-a-half more years fleeing the Germans.

• • •

Our last day in Paris dawned gray and overcast, the kind of sky Saul Bellow described just after the war as “weighing the city down like a pot lid.” As if to say: You can’t expect a postcard every day, even if I am Paris. We find an Algerian cabbie who is young enough to have missed the French oppressions of the last century in Algeria’s struggle for independence, a handsome, cheerful young man named Lyes, who agrees to drive us around. It’ll be a grand tourist swing of the places and parts of the city Marcy hasn’t yet seen.

To get up to Montmartre (and a quick look at Sacré-Coeur, described by John Gimlette as “a festival of tat”), we do a drive-by of the Arc de Triomphe, notable largely for Lyes’s vigorous assault on its traffic circle. He darts this way and that in the heavy traffic as the various drivers press for advantage. It is a kind of competition in which the contestants obey dictates known only to themselves. There is no eye contact, no horn-blowing as they hurl themselves into the tiniest spaces; they are quietly fierce. Lyes is a slippery fish in unpredictable currents.

“I first come to Paris, I think I am in—what you call?—a formula race,” Lyes says. “I come here and practice, going here, there. I test me, yes, and see that I don’t die. I learn myself to drive faster, so I move. Go slow here, don’t move.”

Lyes drives us up to Montmartre and parks for a moment, giving us the view of Paris Francis Carco wrote about in Jésus-la-Caille when he said, “He took in its receding immensity.” Then we drive down the hill, through the top of the 11th arrondissement, and cut through the Marais so that Marcy can see the Jewish quarter. “Here is les juifs,” he says—the Jews. “And this section is many gay peoples. I think world trouble is not from peoples so much as governments. I like all peoples. All same, is people. Like me, they only wish to live.”

We drive past Notre Dame with its regimented row of kings presiding over the tourists (they were biblical kings but the revolutionaries of 1793 mistook them for French royalty and bashed them about; Mark Twain called them “broken-nosed old fellows”), and down the Seine to the Louvre. In the interests of time, we have foregone the Louvre for the Orsay, and so I will not be able to pay my respects to the attendant in the Louvre restroom, Madame Pipi, who startled the provincial me on my first visit there.

We exchange art for late afternoon tea at a small salon off the Rue de Rivoli, finding ourselves seated near the unisex restroom. The lock was broken on its door, giving consternation to young ladies seeking solace there, so Madam Hawley offered to stand guard over their modesty while they set to. “Who’d have thought that I should find myself an attendant at the Loovre,” she said.

In the adjacent square a homeless fellow sleeps on the stone while a pigeon nibbles at the baguette he holds to his breast. The clochard gives rise to a conundrum: is there an advantage in being homeless in one of the world’s grand cities? Do the views dampen hunger? As a young man in Paris, Hemingway—with an appetite he could not yet afford—said hunger gave him a heightened sensitivity to art. He said he understood the Cézanne landscapes much better when he was hungry and he wondered if Cézanne had been hungry when he painted them.

We are up at six for the early morning flight back to the states, piling into a van with a young Parisian and a Canadian couple. We’re soon joined by a voluble Brazilian fellow in short pants who tries several languages, attempting to find a conversation he seems to desperately need. He knew his language, a dialect or two, and Italian. Unfortunately, the van was all French and English. After several attempts he finally gave up and talked to himself. At the airport, he forlornly hugged everyone, as though we were family who had somehow disappointed him.

On the back road into Wilmington, I am stopped by a Highway Patrolman. I had momentarily forgotten I was back in county where the locals drive considerably under the speed limit, and I was driving too closely to one dilatory fellow who was nosing idly along. For a moment, I was back with Lyes in the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle. The young patrolman notices the luggage in the back.

“You have been away?” he asks politely.

“France,” I say. “I’m still driving in Paris traffic.”

“I’ve always wanted to go there,” he says, handing me a warning. “Remember to be mindful of others while you’re driving.”

In its own way, it’s the perfect ending to the journey in which there were dozens of encounters of many types, and all of them, every one, having been enacted by others with an unfailing politesse. And, finally, my own countryman, who had found me properly censurable and then diplomatically forgave me.


47th New Millennium Award for Nonfiction

John Baskin is the author of New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village. He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, The Yale Review, and other publications. 

“In Search of Leo” © 2018 John Baskin

• • • Thanks for Reading • • •
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9 thoughts on “”

  1. Paulette S. Jolliffe

    Wonderful story and sentiment. Wonderful writing. I traveled to France and back in time while drinking my morning coffee.

  2. A masterful piece of writing. Its themes and quality put me in mind of Bill Bryson and Primo Levi, two of my favorite writers. Now I have a third favorite, John Baskin. Thank you, John Baskin, and congratulations for this well-deserved prize.

  3. Thank you, John Baskin, for this journey and the excellent company you provide as you balance the aching past with present appreciation and, truly, love. The anecdotes, the quotations of other travelers and denizens, and the observations of the small and the profound brought to the surface my own memories as well as introducing me to places, people, and experiences I have not known. I also feel your own familiar voice throughout, the way I do when reading John McPhee, who has taken me into the lives of so many people and their working, living environments.

  4. Congratulations to Mr. Baskins on his remarkable essay. To say that he raises the bar for a travelogue is an understatement. His writing is near perfection, and he MUST continue to share his mastery, insight, clarity, humor and humanity with more essays!

  5. Mary Thomas Watts

    John Baskin has long been one of my favorite nonfiction writers. I find myself stopping to re-read a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, and when I’m done, I wonder at the beauty of the piece in its entirety. That was certainly the experience with “In Search of Leo.” Thank you, John, and congratulations!

  6. “Souviens-toi,” Baskin quotes, the admonition of those who have no choice but to remember the Bourdeaux village of Ouradour, massacred almost to a soul by retreating German troops in the wake of the D-day invasion. In this masterful essay, cum elegy, he visits Ouradour on the track of his old Jewish friend, Leo, who himself several times escaped the nazis during the occupation. “Souviens-toi,” might well serve as the underlying theme for much of Baskin’s work, and in this he recalls writers like Primo Levi and W.G. Sebald, but with a very different slant, one that asks, what is my responsibility to remember, an American, a generation removed from those horrors? What am I supposed to do with all this history? And why should I do anything with it at all? For the answers, the imperative is to read this essay. This is what, this is why.

  7. I greatly enjoyed “In Search Of Leo.” It took me there with you and further back, through my own travels to many of the same places, and further, to new-to-me places, people, into history of which I was ignorant and am now happy as well as sorry to know.

  8. Congratulations, John, and thanks for letting me know of this well-deserved award. I feel at a disadvantage having been out of touch for so many years–but now, how wonderful to have the chance to track down all the writing you have published in the meantime; what a feast awaits me–I’ll savor every page.

  9. Anyone, who has tried to pawn off their french overseas, knows that natives of Le Midi are as persnickety about giving voice to the silent E as Parisians are about everything. A couronne de brioche is completely unorderable from in Vaison-la-Romaine without the -nah and the -chah at the ends. That detail inserts me into the story; the others, seemingly insignificant pastiches, keeps me there. But, more masterful is the graceful interweaving of time and place which keeps evenly weighted all parts of the narrative and prevents any one from becoming dominant. Marcy keeps it all real.

    Kudos to the judges for recognizing “Leo” for excellence and giving Mr. Baskin the award.

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