I don't remember ever seeing this photo before, but it's clearly the day of my high school graduation, for there is my mother in the background, corsage in place on her summer frock, and Tom is two and a half, and there is my sister Ann, five, peeking wistfully around the chair. And there I am, 18 and almost a half, opening a gift that will in turn open the world to me...the largest of a set of Samsonite luggage I received as a family graduation gift for my impending travel to college in the fall.
If you have come to know me only in the last 30 years, don't strain your eyes trying to recognize the me who is now in the me in the photo. I've traveled far enough away from that pinpoint in time and space to make it impossible. Likewise, I eventually lost the small white travel case when someone broke into my car in NYC one summer with my pearl necklace and a favorite scarf in it, but otherwise those cases served me well through college and beyond, as I flew off into my adventures with the world.
It seems as if, especially these days, I am always on the road or in the skies. ("When I talk to you, I'm always safe saying Welcome home!", my friend Leonard says.) Mostly, as I've mentioned before, it's travel to family occasions, but there was Paris, too, in early spring, and that journey brought back to me the pleasure and fulfillment of being in a place where everything is new and yet to be discovered. I can't wait to return, for at my trip's end I felt as if I were only beginning to know that city. I can't wait, as well, to go on to other new places, as many as I can. My suitcases may have changed to the lighter variety, but they still take me abroad perfectly well.
What did I do in Paris, everyone asks? I walked. Walked and walked, through streets and parks, by shops and beautiful houses, around corners, by the Seine, room to room in museums and bookstores, up and down the stairs of palaces and the Opera, to cafe's, to gardens.
Each morning, I took to the streets in one direction or another, to see what I could find. In the first few days, I had my old friend Will with me, who joined me on the Eurostar from London to Paris. The Eurostar prefaced Paris the way once the cruise on the ocean would preface the Grand Tour. I'd visited him and Dorothy in their London house for a few nights before, including a day of exploring a really intense--in color and mood and fascination--Vanessa Bell exhibit in the charming English village of Dulwich. (My short London excursions will have to be the subject of another post.) Will and I go back to early graduate-student days, but he's lived in London for nearly 30 years. He was wonderful company, not least because, having spent most of his career guiding students abroad, he was a superb guide both in London and Paris, and while we searched Paris for our favorite cafe's, we had a grand time catching up on life since our days of endless coffees in the student union between classes,
Paris on my own was amazing. I know, I know...that word has become a weak participle, not worthy of real use, but here it finds its true definition, which means that Paris led me into its maze and astounded me. It's a beautiful city, with fascinating small neighborhoods--each with its own culture--just behind the grand boulevards. And architecture which, despite its formidable grandeur, draws one into a welcoming, comfortable parlor. Its aberrations, the tall Montparnasse tower one finds one's direction with, for instance, slide into view only for their practicality. It is easy to navigate, once one memorizes the landmarks rising above, and beauty is around every corner, so it's also easy to get lost, and when one does, there is even more amazement at what one finds.
I would walk a while, getting my bearings, and then sink into one of those ubiquitous herringbone seats outside cafes to drink cafe' creme...and once or twice indulge in a viennoiserie amond because, although I don't do pastry at home, when en Paris one doesn't dare resist. Sipping my cup, I'd look over the map to plan what I'd like to see or what route looked interesting, though frankly, I would more often end up wandering off route toward some other horizon. Par example.
On either side of the Seine, invitations to discover were rife. There near the Orangerie, where Monet's enormous Water Lilies curve around the oval walls, the great wheel rises and buses line up exuding tourists; the spring crowds, even at the end of an afternoon, lounge, thinking of dinner. But there are tucked away places more inspiring, like the chapel at the very old Sainte-Sulpice, which offered concerts like the one we attended in Sainte-Chapelle with its glittering stained glass, the spectacle of glass more impressive than the quintet. Medieval history echoes in the Sainte-Etienne du Mont, where, in the quiet, dark shadows and more human proportions call art closer to prayer. And then there are the bridges between.
Walking past the long lines at Notre Dame one morning, we came to the back of the cathedral, its gardens more welcoming. And then we found perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful of the spiritual: the Holocaust Memorial, across the street from Notre Dame, and across universes from it in style and grace. Built into the side of the slope to the river, in the magnificent, plain stone building one walks down into, light shadows dark, austerity shadows strength in open rooms and long corridors with only benches for furnishing, and words etched in the white stone walls to reflect on, to pray over. I don't have a photograph of it to show you, but, even if I'd have had my camera then to take one, I probably would have refrained. It isn't a place for such image-mongering.
(By the way, you will notice that there aren't many photos with closeups of people in them, either. I loved the faces and gestures and expressions of people I saw each day...the children in their best-dressed modes were priceless, especially...but, sorry as I was not to capture them for you to enjoy and for me to remember, it seemed an intrusion.)
The spaces art inhabits also fascinated me, the glassed station of the D'Orsay or the former house and gardens where the Rodin and Camille Claudel sculptures live so evocatively, the elegant Musee Jacquemart-Andre whose rooms and terrace are as much to explore as its holdings (and in its cafe' find the art of dining itself).
In between, there were everywhere les parcs, petites et grandes, where I watched people from everywhere, the Parisians especially with their coiffed and styled children and dogs, their slow, arm-in-arm gaits making me smile. Large famous parks and green spaces, tiny floral parks in the elbow-crooks of old buildings...along the Seine, along the boulevards, behind quiet streets. The Parc Luxembourg, especially, only a few block south of my hotel, was a wonderful respite in the perfect weather Paris offered me. On a sunny afternoon there, a Norwegian photographer and I conversed in three languages on living in Paris (expensive), great photography (Sally Mann, Ansel Adams), new art (had I seen? yes! had he seen? aha!), the composition of a photograph, politics (the world on the precipice of idiocy), a Norwegian hermit/mystic who predicts people's futures. There are always places to sit, and chairs to pull together or apart for companionship or solitude; few of those carefully manicured green, flowered spaces were without room for a few more visitors.
On another day, the Luxembourg palace, guarded by calm, neatly uniformed (and visibly armed) police, gathered the grayness of the day into its pensive stonework. On yet another, I watched beekeepers draw honey from the hives in the park; along with vegetable and flower nurseries, the park is a working part of the lush gardens, not only their showplace. Mostly, I sat and contemplated my enormous pleasure in simply being there.
The park is, besides, a children's place, and Paris' prettiest playground. Tennis and bouls courts, pond for sailboats, chess tables and chairs to play, watch and learn, kiosks for ice cream, coffee, pastries, crepes, hot dogs (yes), and statues of the people France loves best of its history and its romances.
I dropped into small places for lunch or supper and found the best of Parisian cuisine...not the fanciest but the most tasteful, the most relaxing, the most local. Will had his favorites, too, one of which became mine...Les Foux de L'Ile (The Fowls of the Isle) on L'Ile de Cite. Crowded with brunch-seekers when we arrived early in our stay, it seemed like the place I would like to return to every week if I lived there. But in fact I never did return, because, walking in Paris, there were so many other neighborhood cafe's on the streets to distract me.
The cafe's in Paris are places to settle, lean pensively over coffee, sparkling water or wine, regroup, and consider life. They are places to watch people, eat well, chat with friends or meet strangers. One's place, alone or in a crowd, is one's place...for half the day, if you want it. It's a civilized way to live, and I miss it here.
We strolled the markets, for both art and food, and at the Saturday marche' near the hotel, I met a painter I enjoyed a funny conversation with, not only about art but also about her trips to the Grand Canyon. I bought one of her paintings for a gift, and looked longingly at another artist's beautiful photography I thought I'd go back for (and, sadly, didn't).
At the Daguerre market, around the corner from Will's hotel, I returned time and again and took away sweet, creamy, pungent, delicious cheeses, fruits, tomatoes, and lettuces to take on picnics.
At the Place de Vosges, where we found the elaborate remnants of Victor Hugo's life and feasted on one such picnic, there were also shops to nose into, including Dammann, Freres, where a cathedral of tea greeted us. Delicious and fragrant teas of the sort one doesn't buy unless one first has sniffed the leaves, tasted the tea, and gone mad trying to choose among them, only to walk out with far too few of them (they are, after all, expensive).
And these next two windows I laughed out loud over, the first making a humorous play on its wares (Attention, Gorillas!) and the second taking itself a bit too seriously (though maybe tongue-in-cheek?)
What's fun about window-shopping in Paris is the small shops which specialize (sometimes within specialties) in one kind of item only--a flower market, a yarn shop where the proprietess and I exchanged ideas about scarves, and a store full of socks of every color and design imaginable. And flowers, carefully arranged each morning to make a garden of potted beauties. Yes, chocolate, too.
As for those famous houses of style, I wasn't much into them, though Sonia Rykiel's window caught my eye...at first glance, it looks like a bookstore with mannequins ready to gather for a reading group.
Will and I made a bow to the second Shakespeare and Company, this time a real bookstore, complete with cafe, where I bought two books and a French dictionary to tide me over. Between the dictionary (French-French) and the banners on the news programs I watched each morning, I managed some rudimentary lessons. And I tried, with every breath, to speak the French I'd practiced for so long. The Parisians were, every one, affably patient with my stumbling, tumbling words (one dismissive clerk in a shop on the Champs Elysees, where I'd gone one Sunday just to say I had walked the famous strand, walked away, claiming not to understand me, but she doesn't count).
I guess I haven't mentioned yet that, first thing on this trip, I'd lost my phone stepping off the plane at Heathrow. On it were what I considered my essentials: French vocabulary lessons and--c'est dommage!--my camera, the best one I've ever had. After the first panic (one half a day), I slowly became attuned to being without that appendage, and, interestingly, resisted the need to communicate. There was a kind of relief in not wanting even to take photographs of what I saw; after all, it was my trip, my experience, my reflections, and, happy with the pleasure of the present tense, I wrote in my journal at night, or made notes in the tiny black notebooks I carried each day. But. Halfway into the trip, giving in to my daughter-in-law and sister's long-distance email pleas (the hotel, bless them, let me use their office computer to check in at home), I broke down and bought the camera these photos were taken with...not as good as the one on my phone, but at least I'd have images to share.
Anyway, one of the books I bought in S and Co., Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, fed me, along with her early life, some intriguing history about the very streets where I was staying. De Beauvoir, buried with Jean Paul Sartre in the Cimetiere Montparnasse, had also lived nearby, variously around the corner, and down the street, and several blocks away at different times in her life, and had walked the same streets and commented on the same landmarks I saw each time I left the hotel. I was living them at once au courant and in her early years 80 years before. Just because of that, I stopped in at Le Dome, at the intersection of the boulevards just south of the hotel, to see where her parents' generation thought fit for her father to spend his evenings, and looked across Blvd. Montparnasse at the "upstart" Le Ronde where in those same days more disreputable types congregated. I saw with some irony little difference between them now.
On one of my last nights in Paris, I took myself to the Opera Garnier to see the ballet, performed by a group of young dancers in old and new works. I'd tried in vain to get tickets for the last night of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Opera in the Bastille, but attending the Garnier is theater itself, it's own work of art, an upward spiral of gilt and old velvet, crystal and that marvelous Chagall ceiling where the romantic icons of opera swirl in vibrant and pastel shades.
But there is plenty more to say, with more reflection (and perhaps introspection) about this journey. We'll see what surfaces from memory's store in the future. Au revoir.
Oh, and by the way, my phone came back to me by Fed Ex the other day...would you say, the travel sprites were trying to tell me something...about how to travel well?