Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Brussels - a commune in Anderlecht

The sun was shining for our second day in Brussels (see our first day here.) Our friends decided to take us to Anderlecht, one of the nineteen municipalities located within Brussels. It is officially bilingual – French and Flemish. There, we were to visit a “béguinage” (French) or “begijnhof” (Flemish) which is a collection of small houses where “béguines” lived centuries ago.

Following a narrow path we entered the museum. A very friendly docent first explained the history of the béguinage to us. During the Middle Ages adult women were expected to live under the care of a man, as wife and mother, or in a convent as a nun. After the Crusades many women were left alone as widows without a man’s protection. Béguinage were set up for them - they were usually within a walled enclosure, close to a church, containing little houses, gardens, etc. These were Catholic lay religious communities. There was no mother-house, nor common general rule, every community of béguines fixed their own living regulations – they were medieval communes, if you will, or a sisterhood. Rich or poor women could enter a béguinage. A béguine was not a nun and took no vows. She did not renounce her property, but could return to the world and wed if she wished.

Portrait of a Béguine, Hans Holbein the Younger, German, 1497-1543

Some béguinage were large, such as the great béguinage in Ghent, Belgium, with thousands living there or small like the béguinage in Anderlecht, where we were visiting. Actually this was the smallest béguinage in Belgium occupied by only eight béguines. The Anderlecht béguinage consists of a collection of small houses built between 1252 and the 18th century. The béguines had direct access to the nearby Church of St. Guidon, built in the 16th century.

Click on collage to enlarge then click on each individual picture

The Béguinage Museum opened in 1938 and documents the life of the béguines. Everything was calm in the garden. The tiny houses with their turquoise windows facing the garden and the well were delightful.

Once inside the little house, we had indeed stepped back in time. There are small rooms including a kitchen

a room for lace-workers

a “bollewinkel” or delicacy store

and a small bedroom.

Then we walked into the left wing which had larger rooms for richer béguines.

We could also see, behind a glass window, a private chapel for the eight beguines. Béguines in the Low Countries were a religious group of women dedicated to charity and chastity but since they existed without men the Church did not approve of them – they had too much freedom and were suspect. Some were persecuted.

I liked looking out of the windows and think of the béguines, imagining them behind those same windows looking outside toward the sunny garden – did they feel entirely safe?

Upstairs, on the second floor there was a baby bed, an old stove, an old game,

other ancient objects that were found during archeological digs

as well as some colorful drawings of life in the area

and paintings without the names of the artists.

There were also some old photographs showing the history of Anderlecht, which is now the westernmost municipality of Brussels and the only one with some rural areas. But I did not take their pictures as we had to leave. I took a last look at the roses in the garden.

Years ago I remember seeing another béguinage, called Begijnhof, in Amsterdam, Holland. It was larger, not a museum, and now is owned by a church.

Begijnhof in Amsterdam, Holland (Wikipedia photo)

The small béguinage of Anderlecht had been fun to visit. This little semi-monastic commune is a little peaceful haven in Brussels, the dynamic European capital. While reading the history of Anderlecht I found out that one of my favorite singers, when I was in France, had lived there. Jacques Brel (1929-1978) a popular francophone singer, lived in Anderlecht from 1942 to 1951 and worked in his parents' factory there from 1946 to 1953. Jacques Brel was one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He wrote many songs, directed and acted. He was a musical genius, really.

Jacques Brel (unknown photo owner)

I remember listening to his songs, again and again. One of his songs “Marieke” was in French and Flemish. I loved that song so much that I decided then, if ever I had a daughter, I would give her that name. Indeed, when my eldest daughter was born in San Francisco, her 3rd name is Marieke. She carries a little bit of Belgium in her.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Old-Fashioned Tea Room in Atlanta

As we drove away from the Margaret Mitchell house in midtown Atlanta (see my last post), we followed a Georgia Tech bus and passed by another old building down the street, the Palmer-Phelan Apartments.

The Palmer-Phelan Apartments were built in 1907. They were built in the so-called garden apartment style which was adopted later on by many architects for apartments built in Atlanta in the 1920s.

Click on photo to enlarge

It was 2:40 pm and time for a late lunch. Since we were already in midtown and had seen a “southern landmark,” we decided to go to another one, the Mary Mac’s Tea Room, an old-fashioned southern urban lunch room close by on Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Growing up in Paris I had not heard of a “tea room” as such. My mother and I would go some Thursday afternoons, when school was out, to eat a small cake and drink a cup of tea. In Paris they were called “Salon de Thé” and would usually be next to a “patisserie” (pastry shop.) They were not large shops and were mostly for ladies. They have been famous since the 19th century and earlier as shown in Jean Béraud’s painting below of the Patisserie Gloppe on the Champs-Elysées.

Patisserie Gloppe, Jean Béraud, French 1849-1936

In London I used to go to some tea rooms where they also served meals. I enjoyed the tea rooms of the chain J. Lyons and Company which were called Lyons Corner Houses. I liked one near Victoria Station, or another one on Piccadilly or near Marble Arch. They were not too imposing for a teenager who did not speak English too well. I would have a cup of tea and a piece of pie and felt very British. But I have not seen them the last few times I visited London – they must be a thing of the past already.

Vintage postcard of Maison Lyons Corner House, London

I read that Tea Rooms were extremely popular in the US in the first half of the 20th century. Most were owned and patronized by women. In the 1920s a tea room was a fashionable place for women to meet friends. They did not only serve tea and cakes like those in Paris, but specialized in “lady’s food” such as fancy salads, dainty sandwiches and yummy desserts. These tea rooms could be located in anywhere from a small house to a large department store or hotel. They were nicely decorated and offered a “cozy” atmosphere. Here are several shown in the postcards below.

Vintage postcards of US Tea Rooms - from top left: Prince George Hotel Tea Room in New York City, Blue Parrot Tea Room in Gettysburg, PA
then below left: Grand Crystal Tea Room in Wanamaker Stores, Philadelphia, PA and Japanese Tea Room in the Congress Hotel in Chicago, IL.
Last row: Frederick and Nelson Store Tea Room in Seattle, WA and the Danish Tea Room in Portland, Maine.

In the early 1900s tea rooms were a way for women to own a business and for ladies to enjoy luncheons without being escorted by men. Women proprietors gave their eating establishments the more genteel name of “Tea Rooms” rather than restaurants. In Atlanta there were 16 or so. A famous tea room was named the “Frances Virginia Tea Room.” It was established in 1928 as a 350-seat restaurant. It closed in 1962 so I never had a chance to eat lunch there but my husband gave me the 25th anniversary edition of their cookbook.

The back cover says “Frances Virginia Wikle Whitaker founded her Tea Room in the late 1920s. It was indelibly stamped with taste and style. Ladies wore white gloves. The setting was elegant, decorous, the food sumptuous …..for almost four decades the “Frances Virginia” reigned on Peachtree Street, as prestigious as her neighbors ….That Atlanta is gone.

Inside the book is says “…In the 1920, “tea room” signified a dynamic restaurant filled with independent women, bachelors, businessmen and families, instead of the little-old-lady stereotypes we think of today.” Below is a postcard of the Frances Virginia Tea Room and a 1948 menu.

There was hardly any traffic on Ponce de Leon Avenue but we quickly found a parking place in front of Mary Mac’s Tea Room.

Mary McKenzie opened her tea room in Atlanta in 1945 to make money in the tough post World War II job market. Ponce de Leon Avenue then was a bustling place. There were trolley cars, fancy movie theatres and many shops. But now, 66 years later Mary Mac’s Tea Room is the only one left of the 16 tea rooms in Atlanta. Actually these were not really “tea” rooms but a nicer way of calling a “meat and three” restaurant. Mary Mac served old-fashioned comfort food cooked the southern way. John Ferrell purchased Mary Mac’s Tea Room in 1994. The cuisine though is the same traditional down-home Southern Food. It’s a busy restaurant but since we arrived at 3:00 pm we did not have to wait to be seated.

There are several dining rooms there. The Myrtle Room was being readied for a large group. The Ponce Room is small and was ready to serve dinner that evening.

We were seated in the Atlanta Room.

We placed our order, accompanied with what they call “Table wine of the South” which is “sweet tea.” In Georgia when you order tea you always get iced tea, usually sweet. If you wish hot tea, you have to specify “hot tea.”

While our food was being prepared I took some pictures. The hall wall is covered with photographs of politicians, sports figures and celebrities from President Carter to Cher, Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama.

With our iced tea they brought us a bowl of “pot likker” which is the broth left over from the long boil of collard or turnip greens. This is African in origin and is usually sided by a cornbread muffin so you can dip it into the pot likker. It was very flavorful.

Mary Mac’s advertises that “ … every morning the workers shuck bushels of corn, hand wash selected greens and snap the fresh green beans by hand. Breads and desserts are baked on the premises. “ Our plates arrived and the food looked indeed like classic old timey southern food. I had grilled catfish with sides of turnip greens, squash casserole and fried okra. My husband had the salmon croquettes with sides. Both of our plates were too much for us to eat and we took advantage of take-out containers to take home the leftover – which is something not done in France. We also took our peach cobbler dessert home.

Now with my new cookbook I may include some Ole’ South favorites to my regular French-Mediterranean cuisine.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gone with the Wind - 75th Anniversary

Above is the poster for the movie Gone with the Wind in French as it was in theatres in Paris and Brussels in the early 1940s. Friday, June 17th, was my husband and my 44th wedding anniversary. We had thought of going on a trip out of state to celebrate but instead we decided to visit the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta which is celebrating the book 75th anniversary this year.

My grandmother bought me subscriptions to the girls’ magazine “La Semaine de Suzette” when I was a little girl. I remember, maybe in 1947 or 1948, reading in this magazine a story happening in the American South. There was an illustration showing a little girl in front of a large mansion with columns. The story talked about a war in the southern states of that country, called in France “La Guerre de Sécession” (Secession War.) I thought that since the land was covered mainly with cotton fields there would have been fewer houses to destroy like in the war we had in France just a few years before – I saw some badly damaged houses on our trip to Normandie. Back then I would have never believed that one day I would live in the south of the USA and in the very state (Georgia) where the story was set.

It took us about 45 minutes to drive to the house now known as the Margaret Mitchell House. It is located in Midtown Atlanta, at the corner of 10th Street and Peachtree.

Click on collage to enlarge then click on each picture

After Margaret’s second marriage to John Robert Marsh on July 4, 1925, the couple moved into the ground floor apartment shown on the picture below. Behind the three tall windows on the left was an alcove where Margaret liked to sit and read.

This is what is written on the sign shown below, on the lamppost: “1965 Shining Light Award honoring Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) author of “Gone With The Wind” for her contribution in portraying Atlanta and the Historic South to the World. Atlanta Gas Light Company – WSB Radio.”

This was one of the first brick homes in Atlanta, built in 1899. First a single family home it became “The Crescent Apartments.” After being abandoned and boarded up it deteriorated and was set afire by arson in 1994. The German industrial company Daimler-Benz AG restored the apartment house. I remember well watching on the news, in May 1996, that the house had caught fire again, just as the $4.5 million renovation was about to be completed in time for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. (It was arson again.)

The Daimler-Benz company started the cleaning and rebuilding immediately. Luckily, Margaret Mitchell’s apartment had escaped with minor damage. The restored house opened to the public in 1997 - it is included on the National Register of Historic Places. We entered through the back entrance, the same entrance Margaret would have used when she lived in Apartment no. 1. A docent took us first to a large room with exhibits on the life of Margaret Mitchell. Next to it is a small side room showing Margaret's desk at the Atlanta Journal where she was a reporter. Many pictures in the museum show Margaret from childhood all the way to her untimely death in 1949.

The docent explained that Margaret had been quite a tomboy and an uninhibited young lady, dancing the tango with bells tied to her garter-belt making noise as she danced.

Some of the pictures were for sale as postcards in the gift shop and I purchased several.

Passing a lion carving we went up the stairs. There were just two empty rooms and a painting of Margaret Mitchell. I looked through the curtains and we walked back downstairs to Apartment no. 1.

Margaret and her husband John lived in Apartment no. 1 from 1925 to 1932. It is small, about 650 sq. ft. There is a living room, a bathroom, a bedroom and a kitchen. The apartment is furnished in the style appropriate for the period when Margaret lived there and wrote Gone With The Wind. The couple had obtained some heirlooms from their families but it was mostly hand-me-downs and second-hand furnishings.

There they entertained many friends. They had decided not to live with Margaret’s widowed father in the large house where she grew up. Margaret’s mother, Maybelle, was a strong supporter of woman suffrage. She was the president of one of Atlanta’s most militant groups of suffragettes. Her grand-father Phillip Fitzgerald had emigrated from Ireland and settled on a small plantation near Jonesboro (now Clayton County about 25 miles south of Atlanta.) Maybelle had married Eugene Mitchell, a prominent lawyer and President of the Atlanta Historical Society. Unfortunately she died during the influenza epidemic of 1919. Margaret came back home from school then to be with her father. Later she became the first female columnist in the South’s largest newspaper under the name Peggy Mitchell. Margaret’s family home and her father are pictured below.

Photos Courtesy Pullen Library, Georgia State University

As an anniversary present to ourselves we purchased the paperback 75th anniversary edition of Gone With The Wind as pictured at the beginning of this post. It was published in May 2011 by Scribner and features the book’s original jacket art. Years ago I had purchased, as another anniversary present for my husband, a good second-hand 1940 motion pictures edition of the book.

In 1936, when the first edition of Gone With The Wind was published it sold more than a million copies in the first six months. It is on the list of best-selling books, selling more than 30 million copies in 38 countries. It has been translated into 27 languages. In 1937 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Margaret Mitchell started writing the book in the apartment pictured above. She was staying off her feet after an ankle injury. It is said that Margaret wrote the first draft of her book from memory. She had been brought up listening every Sunday since she was a wee child to stories about the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Maybelle Mitchell with Margaret and brother Stephen (courtesy Wikipedia)

She would listen to the tales of Confederate War veterans visiting her home and did not realize that the war had been fought a long time ago. She knew about the burning and looting of Atlanta as other children know about fairy tales. Many years ago I read the book “The Road to Tara: the life of Margaret Mitchell” by Anne Edwards where she explains how Margaret grew up listening to all these battle and war stories which became part of her life.

Click on picture to enlarge

Going through the small garden we entered an annex building containing more memorabilia and exhibits on the 1939 motion picture of Gone With The Wind.

A large portrait of Scarlett O’Hara from the Butler Mansion in the film is also displayed there.

In the back of the room there are several seats in front of a large television screen which continuously runs a 90 minutes documentary film on the making of the movie. I did not know that the US public had offered names of actresses who they felt would be a perfect Scarlett. The film shows several of the actresses auditioning for the part – Paulette Goddard was a favorite. It took two years for Mr. Selznick to decide on Vivian Leigh as his Scarlett. It was also interesting to find out that “the burning of Atlanta” was the first scene that had been shot at the Culver Studio in Los Angeles for this movie. For this scene many sets and backdrops of older movies, like the 1933 King Kong movie set, were used. Below are several shots I took from this GWTW documentary.

The actual front door of Scarlett’s home “Tara” is exhibited in the room. It was Betty Talmadge, the former wife of governor and US Senator Herman Talmadge, who purchased in 1979, for $5,000 what was left standing of the GWTW set (doorway, windows, cornice, etc.)

Margaret Mitchell was not pleased with the way Tara had been depicted in the movie. In a letter to a friend Margaret said that compared to other sections of the South, Atlanta and North Georgia were new and crude at the time and white columns were the exception. Director Selznick turned the house into an elaborate white mansion. Below is the first sketch for Tara in 1938 then the extended sketch for the 1939 film and a scene with Scarlett.

In the years leading to the Civil War most of the plantations in that part of Georgia were small and extremely rural, in the backwoods. There are some large Greek revival mansions, like we have in Marietta, but they were built by rich merchants and military men. Below is Tranquilla built in 1849 in Marietta by General Andrew J. Hansell.

Below is another Marietta historical house. It was built in 1848 for John Glover a successful businessman and the first mayor of Marietta. Originally on 3,000 acres it encompassed only 13 acres when my friend from the Rose Society owned it. Most of the land now surrounding the house has been sold to build condos.

A plaque in the movie museum explains this myth:

Over time Hollywood’s romantic interpretation of the South blurred the images so carefully crafted by Margaret Mitchell. The O’Hara family members were Irish immigrants living in the poor North Georgia Hills country one generation removed from log cabins. Selznick transformed the family into Southern plantation aristocracy and created a Tara which existed neither in the mind nor in the book of Atlanta journalist Margaret Mitchell. For millions around the world the movie Gone With The Wind defined the South for much of the 20th century. Images from the film, not the book , have fostered stereotypes that have shaped public expectations about the people and landscape of the South particularly Atlanta. …”

Rich owners now build what they believe are Tara style mansions in subdivisions down my road – examples below.

Margaret Mitchell died on 16 August 1949 following injuries received when she was struck by a speeding taxi as she crossed Peachtree Street. I show the picture I took of her grave in my post Historic Atlanta Cemetery.

In a weak moment, I have written a book." - Margaret Mitchell

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