Respect Your Elders (The Uses and Lore of a Familiar Tree)

 Kay Nielsen, The Elder Mother (ca. 1900)

“It was not exactly a story,” said the Elder-mother; “but the story is coming now, and it is a true one. For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder-bush has sprung out of the teapot.
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Elder-Tree Mother”

For people of millennia past everything crackled with meaning. The fire that burned in the soul was “of the same essential nature as the stars,” the twentieth-century Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács wrote, for the world was for those living then “new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own.” Even plants were rich in significance. The humblest weeds had indwelling spirits both familiar and strange.

Continue reading

Café Au Lait: A Beverage Unfit for the Roll

Whether congregating in the Café de Paris on the Boulevard de Italiens or the Cabaret de la Mère Saguet at the barrier du Maine (a favorite of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas’), Parisians of all ages and walks of life made a point of conspiciously sipping coffee or cocoa as regularly as their circumstances allowed. They did this not merely to get a jolt of caffeine, but to see and be seen. “We require publicity, broad daylight, the street, the cabaret,” M. Alfred Delvan writes about himself and his fellow urbanites in his Histoire Anecdotique des Cafés et Cabarets de Paris (1862), “well or ill, we desire to exhibit ourselves from home.” Delvan considers this desire the sine qua non of the Parisian character. “We delight in attitudinising,” he continues, “in making a show of ourselves, in having a public, an audience, witnesses of our lives.”

Continue reading