This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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The most wonderful bookshops

dauntbooksBookshops? you may inquire. Who goes to bookshops anymore, when you have Kindle, Amazon, and the easy kiosk bookshops at airports? Fortunately there are still people who love the smell of books and the feeling of picking an unknown but intriguing book off the shelf, knowing it may change your world if you just sit down and give it attention. Fortunately there are still people who love the excitement of discovery in 3D which is not possible if you browse Amazon, like a holiday trip but much cheaper (unless one comes out carrying one’s weight in paper).

My opinion is that every bookshop is important. And then there are bookshops which are both important and special, somehow. Perhaps because of their history, or how they are run. Or simply by the books they carry. Here below are a few of my favorites in no particular order, the ones that I easily lose an hour or two in. If it is not on the list it may be because I have not yet visited it – so please drop me a note!

Shakespeare and Company (Paris): English language books in a maze-y bookshop from the 50s on the Left Bank in Paris. That is an amazing combination in itself already, but it gets better: if you are an aspiring writer you can stay for free in any of the small beds hidden away between the shelves, writing away on any of the old typewriters ensconced in quiet nooks. All you have to do in return is help around, maybe read aloud, and read and review books. You will be one of tens of thousands of writers who stayed, and if you are lucky you will run into celebrated writers who occupy a room upstairs. This wonderful shop is named after the legendary shop which entertained Hemingway, Pound, Fizgerald, and the lot in the 1920s, until WWII broke out. In summer there is usually a line outside so come early in the day. It’s worth the wait.

City Lights Bookstore (San Francisco): The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights just a few years after Shakespeare and Company was re-created in the 50s. He called it the sister of the shop in Paris, perhaps because both drew crowds of beat poets and writers. While the browsing experience is not at all like that of an old nearly derelict Parisian riverside building, I love this shop because of its history, the founder’s wonderfully hilarious poetry, and the book content. If social activism, world history and politics or poetry is your thing, this shop is for you. The most-bought book is probably the beat poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg.cassandrabook.jpgPowell’s City of Books (Portland, OR): 1970s shop specialized in vintage and rare books, but also carrying a big collection of new books (side by side with the old ones). The key to visiting Powell’s is time: the building spans an entire city block and the rooms are color-coded, to help navigate with a map you can request. Powell’s also has a café and when I visited the place 10 years ago we were invited to take our book picks and read – even if we had not paid for them just yet. The shop also has a Rare Books Room which you can request access to if rare books are your thing.

Daunt Books (London): Edwardian building with a glass roof, specialized in travel books, even publishing its own collection of interesting books around the world. What can be a better reason to visit London? The top photo of this post is from Daunt Books and as you can see, the shop is to be browsed according to geographical location, save for the front room which has a traditional by-topic setup of mostly non-travel books. Daunt Books owns a few other well-curated bookshops around the UK, disguised under other names, so have a look at their store listing before you visit.

Pilgrims Book House (Kathmandu): Deep in the old town maze of Thamel hides a surprisingly large bookshop, with not only books but wonderful crafts, incense, and gift items. While the company is over 25 years old, the old bookshop burnt down in 2013 and the new shop probably does not stock quite the same selection of rare books, but you can still find them here. As well as books on mountaineering, Nepalese and Tibetan history and culture, outdoors, and of course Hinduism, Buddhism, and actually pretty much any other world religion or philosophy.

Heffers (Cambridge, UK): My favorite haunt when I studied in Cambridge. The last time I visited this shop was in 2015, with the result that I together with my sister lugged home about 10 kg of books in our suitcases. Including the ones below. Heffers is catering for world-class university students and scientists, and so if you are interested in micro-topics like the social life of trees, quantum biology, or famous historical people who liked to talk walks in London at night, this shop is for you.booksBlackwell’s (Oxford, UK): As of a few years Heffers is actually part of Blackwell’s, a UK university-town bookshop chain. Like Heffer’s, Blackwell’s caters for academics and the Oxford shop is another fabulous place to get lost in, as well as the original base of Blackwell’s, founded in 1879. Part of the shop is underneath Trinity College, including the Norrington Room which holds a Guiness World Record for its 5 km of shelves of books: the largest room of books for sale in the world.

When longing to visit a most-wonderful bookshop: If you really love books, perhaps you’d like to smell like one? The scent of old books is a science in itself, and the past few years boutique perfume companies have issued scents that smell of old paper, books, and everything we like to associate with it: perhaps a little leather from the book cover, smoke from a pipe or cigar, wood from the shelves, or dried pansies from grandmother’s table. The only one I have been privileged to smell is Bibliothèque by Byredo, available both as a candle and perfume so we can all dream of bookshops when we are not in one.Paris-2(Vejle, Denmark; October 2019)


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The extravagance of a soul-searching baroness

france-2The owner of this place must have been ambitious. And quirky: she had gazelles, monkeys, and a mongoose in her garden.

She was born into a banker family – and smartly married another banker at the age of 19, not caring her husband was 15 years her senior. Marriages were seldom for love and more for economy, politics, and convenience. When her husband’s business affairs went south she divorced him. They had no children and the rumor goes he not only gave her gray hairs but also a disease that made her barren.france-3She was no angel either, because just as her husband, she liked gambling, too. Her gambling room in her pink (yes of course, pink) villa is quite something. And if she was not entertaining there, she was being entertained in a casino in Monaco.

Her villa was pink, yes; and she loved to dress in blue it is said. If she had lived today she probably had dressed her pets, too. Perhaps she did. But they certainly all had their own luxurious daybeds from best silk and brocade.france-4Béatrice Ephrussi de Rotschild lived the most extravagant life a divorced woman in the turn of the 19th century could. She commissioned an incredible villa and garden – not for herself but to see and to be seen. But was she happy? Perhaps she was in some ways. Women in those days found themselves unfit for any mold if they were divorced, unmarried, and wealthy. Perhaps she was shallow and happiest when entertaining. Or perhaps she felt lost in her role and happiest doing all the things she should not: play tennis, ride horseback on a man’s saddle, drive a car, and even fly a plane. Did she find meaning in her life? Perhaps. And at least one cannot blame her for not trying hard enough.

Unfortunately the house took its time to be completed, and the baroness herself was swept away from this life just four years after its completion. But the house is still there, as are the gorgeous gardens. And if you listen really carefully you can hear the jazzy tune from the gramophone and the click-clack of cards and dice from the after-dinner parlor.
france-5(Cap Ferrat, France; April 2018)


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When I grow old

france-13When I grow old I do not want to look at four walls. I do not want to become a person who is afraid to go out of the house. I do not want hospital food unless the hospital is my only option. When I grow old I do not want to endure long, dark winters. I do not care if I will remember things or not. Most likely I will not. That is fine, as that is how life goes sometimes.

When I grow old I want to live by the sea. If I can walk I would like to go for a walk along the waterline, come sun or rain or wind.

If I cannot walk I would like to just sit and stare at the sea. In a chair. Or, even better, in a swing. If I can smell the sea, I would like to smell the sea every day. If I cannot smell a thing, I want to remember what the sea smells like. They say scents are the deepest memories of our being. I hope I will remember the scent of the sea. But even if I do not, it does not matter as long as I know I can see the waves.

When I grow old I want to sit and look at the sea. Every day. If I cannot see a thing, I would like to listen to the sea. That is fine, as that is how life goes sometimes.

When I grow old I want to sit and listen to the waves rumble. Every day. If I cannot hear a thing, I would like to feel the breeze and salt spray on my skin. I want to feel the hairs on my arm stir in the breeze and my cheek cool down in the wind. That is enough, and it is fine, as that is how life goes sometimes.

(Villefranche-sur-Mer, France; April 2018)


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Where to hide from view

france-9Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat: for those who have yachts to spare, or those who wish to take a lovely harborside stroll. The trick is to find parking, and most likely you won’t, so consider taking a bus here. While Nice and Monaco and the rest of the Riviera is becoming almost too developed, Cap Ferrat is still lush, with extravagant mansions hiding from view under much greenery and at cul-de-sacs. Because here one can pretend to be just anybody, many royalties and aristocracy have preferred this place. But who was (saint) Jean?france-1(Cap Ferrat, France; April 2018)


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Villefranche-sur-Mer

france-11No need for a gym pass for those who live in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Their gym has either a sea view or a view of sunlight old houses nestled close to each other. Those who work at the city hall have the pleasure of a light cardio exercise as they walk through the citadel and enter the sunny courtyards on top of the hill. france-12Villefranche-sur-Mer’s little alleyways have always been so narrow. The town just grew organically around the little fishing harbor. Rumor is Jean Cocteau used the back streets for a haunting scene in a film. What is known for sure is that he loved the place so much he painted the insides of the fishermen’s chapel in a lovely Picassoesque style. france-15Many other movies have been partially filmed here: a James Bond, a Hitchcock movie, and others. Somerset Maugham had an apartment here as he much preferred the quiet waterfront to the busy Nice boardwalk.

I can quite understand why. If I were to concentrate on writing a book, this is the atmosphere I’d prefer, too.
france-10(Villefranche-sur-Mer, France; April 2018)


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Hot chocolate and returns

Biarritz-4Night caps. What a lovely concept. After a delicious dinner, when one is not really ready to go home or to bed, when one needs to linger and savor the night and one’s thoughts (or company), the answer is a night cap. There is nothing better than dipping into a quiet bar or lounge to listen to some jazz, piano music, or just the conversation of a friend. And yes, a drink is always in order. And yes, at this late hour nothing is off the etiquette, not even a hot chocolate in early July.

The hot chocolate at Hotel du Palais is famous. Liquid, sweet, melted chocolate, lightly whipped and poured into a hot jug. And there is always more, as you will not receive a cupful but indeed a jugful. Just what one needs to wrap up a perfect evening after the sun has set.

Biarritz, I will be back. I will be back when the sea rages, the whales pass by, and the lighthouse beam sweeps over the foaming water. I will let the wind work my hair into a new style and then sneak in to Hotel du Palais, bury myself into the corner of a couch, and sip hot chocolate in silence with a good book. Until then, you have a tiny piece of my heart.biarritz-2(Biarritz, France; July 2016)