The train ride from the South of France to Paris where I got to talk with my cousin, Bobby, for three hours straight – that’s what I say say when people ask what my favorite part of the trip was. From time to time Bob’s beautiful husband, Laurent, would look past his magazine to smile at us, chatting away. I listened to stories of their wild and exotic holidays around the world, their many brushes with death (an oxygen tank running out during a deep sea dive, their boat running out of gas with no land in sight, off-roading in a Smart car) and their quest to create a family which is impossible for same-sex couples in France. It had been ten years since Bobby and I had that kind of time together. Bob is younger than me and spent many years acting in New York City. Now he teaches English theatre in the French public school system as well teaching acting to a few private clients who’ve flown him to Cannes, sailed him around the Greek Islands with Baz Luhrmann, and gifted him with iThings. One might suspect he’s running a little escort service on the side, but he insists not. He’s just that talented.
After a month-long battle with throat infections, it was great to spend my first two days recovering in the South of France at the home of Laurent’s mother, Janou. Janou is a tiny, impeccably dressed woman of Italian decent who was raised in war-time France, which means there is no food nor human skill wasted by her. She is a fantastic cook, a master seamstress adept at the complex art of traditional French patterning, and a woman of taste and style. The interior of her home looked like a catalog from West Elm. All of the linens (curtains, table clothes, bed sheets) were sewn by her. I slept under a gorgeous blanket made of the finest cotton. I ate like a queen. One day they brought me to the sparkling city of Nimes where Janou grew up, her old flat now a tattoo parlor. We danced along side a bohemian street carnival with drums, brass and twenty-foot puppets. Turns out, patchouli is a universal scent. I learned about Janou’s childhood, French Provencal cooking, and bull fighting, which I did my best to respect if not understand. In Janou’s little village of Calvisson Bob and I met an artist who makes whimsical furniture from cardboard. He then covers it with artisan paper and what looks like industrial-strength decoupage. The creative process always intrigues me, but doubly so in this case because the artist-boy was very, very tall and very, very gorgeous, and since Bob and I have the same taste in men we could have spent all day gazing up at his dreamy eyes. We went back the next morn to buy a small piece of art (photograph him).
Friends told me how nice it is to simply tune-out and how freeing it can be to contribute exactly nothing to conversations, so I looked forward to embracing the happy silence of the language barrier. But I couldn’t pull it off. I bombarded poor Janou with so many questions she decided to dedicate an entire morning to teaching me the recipes I’d been grilling her on. It was fantastic! Much better than any gift I could have brought home. What I learned from Janou could conceivably last longer than my lifetime. I returned to my family knowing how to make Janou’s Soupe au Pistou (Pesto soup), Olive tapenade (they have their own olive tree by the pool!), local baby clams w/garlic, Moreaux (white fish) spread, endive salad, and Laurent’s famous chocolate cake. By the time I said goodbye to Calvisson I was well-rested and ready for adventure.
Paris. Picture the most dazzling city in the world teaming with spectacular architecture, sculptures, and fountains, throw in dozens of outstanding restaurants, cafes and patisseries, flood it with artists and people from all over the world, then multiply its fabulousness by ten, and one might begin to grasp why Paris is referred to as the greatest city in the world. I’ve a gut feeling the French have achieved world dominance where presentation is concerned. Aesthetically, they are superior. Literally every corner of the city it is more breathtaking than the last. A newish University building (1900) was meticulously designed to blend-in and preserve the integrity of its neighboring buildings, many hundreds of years old. “This is why we pay so much money to live here,” Laurent said as we zoomed by on his scooter. Laurent was my ticket to Paris. I held tight as we darted in and out of traffic along the Seine, under the shimmering Eiffel Tower, past the Champs Elysees, round the Arc d’Triumph and back again.
As a young teen Laurent became a professional ballet dancer at the Paris Opera House. It was the happy ending to his real-life Billy Elliot story and the beginning of his illustrious career. At forty-two he retired from dancing and was offered an elite position as a dance instructor for the company from which he retired. He works three days a week at the Opera House, one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever laid eyes on. Its interior is even more impressive than its exterior. In the old days, Opera represented the loftiest members of society and the Opera House clearly reflects this in its design. The grand staircases, halls and ball rooms were made for strolling and admiring. During my private backstage tour, I saw everything: the stage, the fly space (seven stories high), the wings, the subscribers room and the rehearsal studios where two dancers were rehearsing for their upcoming show in Japan. I could scarcely breath as I watched them. The fluidity of their motions, the shapes they created with their bodies, the passion between them, moved me to tears. In the wardrobe department I touched the tiny crystals, thousands sewn by hand, on a ballerina’s gown. The frame was so small, I wondered if these dancers ever ate. They’re certainly were not devouring the two baguettes a day that Bob and I averaged. It can’t be helped. “Dare I say,” boasted Bob, “the baguettes are that good!”
Some things are better in Paris. Baguettes. Cheese. Wine. Croissants. Espresso. The pace. I counted five new Starbucks, but no matter how badly my hand longed to hold a coffee cup as I walked, it was my mission to resist. Walking and eating/drinking goes against the Parisian grain. Cafes simply don’t offer drinks to go. One is to sit and enjoy food and drink, not rush about. Besides, they do a quick espresso shot (none of this cream and sugar business) after most meals as a little pick me up. I was in heaven. But I was feeling a wee bit guilty, so I searched for something we Americans excel at and I was surprised to discover two things: French fries and bike helmets. Twice on my own I had fries just to see (once while waiting in a three-hour line at the Eiffel Tower and again in a little pub I passed just as my legs were about to buckle from all the walking). American fries are just as good if not better especially considering the variety we have (steak, shoestring, cheddar, garlic, regular, etc.,). And number two, in spite of their progressive bike rental system (with automated pick-up and drop-off sites conveniently located throughout the city) bike helmets were nonexistent! This is troubling when it’s common knowledge that the aim of public bus drivers is to kill cyclists. They in fact succeeded several times during the flagship year of the bike program. I’m scared to cycle on sweet, little Hawthorne Boulevard yet under Bobby’s (ultimately dangerous) wing I braved the insane streets Paris and lived to tell about it. If I can ride there, I can ride anywhere.
The streets have a way of calling to people. Thousands of years old, they unfold like a treasure map. I found myself sitting in the morning light outside La Madeleine church. I was late to meet Bob, but I couldn’t resist the building plus I needed to rest. With what little French I could muster I set-out to borrow a cell phone. Once people learned that I didn’t actually understand French they often mistook me for Dutch, German or any Slavic orientation, but never American. I wondered why. While people were intrigued with my nationality, the clock was ticking and the prospect of reaching Bob wasn’t good. Then along the cobblestones, I spied an older man coming toward the stairs. He wore a brown plaid hat that begged for a tiny red feather. He was short in his suit jacket and pants, early eighties maybe, and he carried with him an old fashioned valise. It looked as if he’d just stepped out of a time machine. Our eyes met and we greeted each other like old friends. After a quick game of international charades, I discovered not only didn’t he have a cell phone that worked in France, but phone calls were of no importance to him – they only delayed what he’d been trying to tell me. He opened the valise and retrieved an envelope. In it, a black and white photo of three women, one older and two younger, teenagers perhaps. They were his wife and children. He removed his hat, placed it over his heart and pointed to the sky. Heaven. They had passed. All three. I told him how sorry I was. He squeezed my hand with appreciation, but that was not what he was after. He showed me the photo again, this time tapping the background with his index finger then turning and pointing over his shoulder to one of the great columns behind us and the wall relief next to it. It was in the photo. This was where his family had stood many years before. He asked me to take his photo as he stood in the very spot. I did. Then with a tip of his hat he was off. His hat, the suit jacket, the valise… gone, as if he’d walked straight up into the clouds.
These memories go on and on. The museums, the gardens, the shops, the young Americans behind me at the Eiffel Tower, the rowdy Englishman who rallied six or eight strangers into drinking with him at the top of the observation deck, the Moulin Rouge where thanks to Bob’s friend Adonis, a can-can dancer, I got to see the show and go backstage… it’s all with me now. The benefit of traveling on my own was that instead of being fixed and focused, my eyes were open and up, able to see adventure as it came. I’m deeply thankful to TC for the opportunity. It was by far the best gift I’ve ever received. It’s been one week since I returned home. One week since my thoughts were my own. One week since anyone asked if I’d like something to eat. And while I’m desperate for the company of my cousin I can’t bear the thought of leaving my family again. But I feel strongly that I’m to develop an intimate relationship with Paris in the future. Now that I’ve been, I know it’s possible. One day my children will walk the same Parisian streets I did, but they’ll be much younger and they’ll hopefully have an understanding that traveling the world is part of becoming a whole person. My wish for them is that they’ll each follow their bliss, and grow to be adventurous and free. Yet a secret part of me wishes they’ll always be right around the corner from me and that they won’t do to us what we’ve done to our parents, living three thousand miles away from them for all these years. In the meantime, there seems to be a surplus of poopy diapers in this house, someone’s always hungry, and someone is always waiting to be dropped-off or picked-up. These are the days I’ll look back on with longing and affection. This is our Before. Before they go and break our hearts by growing up. Before they know Paris better than I ever did.