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  • Writer's pictureJoan Fernandez

Fairies, feelings and a bit of feminism

“I wonder if we are all wrong about each other, if we are just composing unwritten novels about the people we meet?” — Rebecca West

I know I do. Consider these folks:

  • The young Parisian train ticket agent. Did he truly not understand "Round Trip" in the middle of my broken-French? Or did he sell us One Way's on purpose? (We get stuck behind automatic security gates that stubbornly remain shut, even though we mimic scores of other train travelers that scan and exit the sliding gates in one smooth motion. My Husband's New Yorker-instinct kicks in. I watch as he steps aside, a stranger scans his ticket and as the man steps forward my Husband slips behind him, and is out the other side! Husband turns and looks at me through the barred gate. I swallow, step aside as a woman approaches my gate. She scans, it opens, I ghost behind her. Freedom!

  • The annoyed Bairro Alto coffeehouse waitress. She calls me back, waving the book I'd sneakily (so I thought) left on the table. I am trying out my secretive "Book Fairy" sleight-of-hand skills (to fairy-like leave a book in each European country for someone to find) when she busts me. Leave no books behind! (Must not be a fairy-believer. It's okay. She yelled at me, but it was all in Portuguese. No offense taken.)

  • Or, finally, a Lisbon taxi-driver. Late at night he drops us off at the corner of a dicey dark street, waving vaguely that our restaurant is "over there." (We'd passed the same Irish Pub twice so suspected he was lost, but really?-- pointing us into the street?) We are the dummies because we get out only to discover the restaurant street address doesn't exist. (We pull out an iPhone and turn on roaming cellular for GPS. It's a block north.) Still.

It's a miracle we're home in one piece. And, of course, I'm just skimming the top handful of characters we met.

But now that we are back--from four weeks of travel to Barcelona, Lisbon, Provence, Paris and Amsterdam--jet lag is giving the gift of lots of strange awake hours to sort out and reflect on the people and bits and pieces of our trip.

You already know my book drove our itinerary. I've finished the first draft of an historical fiction story about Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the famous artist's sister-in-law who spent a lifetime making people aware of Vincent's talent. The story is about Jo, and pulls from historical events and people around her and her life in France and the Netherlands. So in planning the trip, I wondered whether it would truly make a difference to actually walk where she walked, to trace the geography of her travels, to see the buildings where she lived, to face her husband's grave where she must have stood. Would Jo leave hints of herself in the places left behind?

Here's one instance of what I found:

  • Vincent and Theo's graves lie side-by-side along a wall of the Auvers-sur-Oise cemetery. We took an early morning train from Paris and are visiting on an appropriately drizzly dark-cloudy day. Auvers is the town where Vincent killed himself in 1890. Theo died in 1891; yet, it wasn't until 1914 that Jo moved Theo's remains from the Netherlands to lie next to Vincent's. A little map on the cemetery gate points us in the right direction to find their graves. We hop around puddles on worn gravel paths, a patchwork of rectangle graves fan out across the grounds. My husband spots the Van Gogh grave plots first, toward the back of the cemetery along a wall. The same Dr Gachet whose portrait was painted by Vincent planted ivy across the plot so the brothers are united under a single comforter of plush, deep-green tightly woven vines. Someone's tucked a few plastic sunflowers into the ivy; raindrops glint on the yellow. I stand in the drizzle, staring at the gravestones, imagining Jo in her long skirts doing the same. "Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890." "Theodore van Gogh 1857-1891." Droplets in her hair. Mud on her shoes. She was 52. A grown son, widowed for a second time, international fame procured for Vincent--all had transpired since the death of her newlywed love 23 years earlier--what was she thinking? What was she feeling?

Sadness? Gratitude? A wash of loneliness? Of love? I could imagine each feeling. No, I felt each feeling. The question is: Can I write it so that you feel it too?


How I'm Writing the Book Ready, Set, Second Draft: On Monday I'm back in the writer chair to start cranking on the second draft. Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Once again, Celeste Ng has written a beautifully layered story with a tender, empathetic dive into each of her characters’ minds in Little Fires Everywhere. Our stars are Mia, a photographer/artist, and her teenage daughter Pearl who come to settle in perfectly planned community named Shaker Heights where the Richardson family lives – a family that will intertwine with Mia and Pearl. Ng’s ability to hop from one point-of-view to another is done so flawlessly that the reader can glide quickly, gathering up the missed connections, the wrong assumptions, mistakes and discoveries of the characters from the delicious vantage point of anticipating their next moves. At the end of the book, I especially enjoyed the little descriptions of insight Ng shares about each character, framed as a mixed-media photographer would create. The photos added another dimension to the rich ground Ng had already prepared for us. I truly enjoyed this book. A terrific second novel from the author of

Everything I Never Told You.

Personal Stuff Meanwhile, we'll go to KC this week to visit our Daughter and Son-in-Law to catch up. Of course we all stayed in touch during our travels via group texts:

Son-in-Law to Husband: Your daughter would like you to bring her gifts of fine wine and cigars from Europe.

Husband to Daughter: Your husband posted that we should bring you something from Europe. There are some great chocolatiers that I am considering.


Son-in-law: She is in dire straits on the cigar front.

Meanwhile our little Grandson is GETTING BIGGER and I am grateful he is coming to visit for Thanksgiving (and his parents too)!

Next blog I will tell you about my fangirl excitement in meeting with the Van Gogh Museum Senior Research Director (Sounds groupie-worthy, right?) Our meeting is still resonating. He has such a deep empathy for the hostility and indifference Jo faced when she persisted in promoting Vincent. Today, we'd call Jo a feminist, though I think she would have defined herself more broadly as an advocate for all who are underprivileged.

This brings me back to Rebecca West (British author, journalist and book critic) for a favorite quote:

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”

Be different!

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