Puis nous sommes allés au Sud de la France [google translate, do me right…]

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The only things I knew about the South of France before I arrived I figure I must have picked up from questionable romantic comedies. Or Inglourious Basterds, I feel like there was some provincial Provence somewhere in that film. Maybe? [RIP Shosanna Dreyfus.] As was the theme thus far in France, I was unclear on what I was supposed to want to do in the South of France, but I know I certainly enjoyed saying, out loud, that I was summering in the South of France. What else did I really need to know?

I had heard a lot of things about Provence. Mostly to do with food, lavender, wine, and sunflowers. I think I also had some illusions about dreamy, mysterious, older gentlemen who might wander out of quaint cafés or mysterious corners bearing flowers or wine or something, while romantic music emanates from some equally mysterious location.

Some of these preconceived notions were spot on.

We left Paris by train headed to Nimês, where we would rent a car to drive to Uzès, a small town near Avignon where Frenchie’s dad lives when he is in France. It was hot, and stunningly beautiful as we moved through the countryside to our first destination. There is something viscerally exciting when, before your eyes, preconceived notions become realities. It is a strangely satisfying combination of surprise, validation and joy.

Arriving in Nimês, we found the car agency and took a bit of time to work out exactly what was going on. Initially I had not been entirely on board with a couple of the decisions – like renting a car – did we really need one? [Yes.] Or did we want to see a concert at the Arena de Nimês even if it was not going to be Lionel Richie? [Hello, yes, although initially no-yes-no-yes.] In keeping with the trend, Frenchie knew best and I was finally learning to keep my mouth shut about it. We would get a car, drop our stuff in it, and head out to see the village of Nimês for crème glacés, tickets, shopping, walking.

And so we did.

Nimês was lovely, and hot. I remember being really impressed initially, but looking back on it after seeing Uzès, it was a little less special, perspective being what it is. It was a lovely intro, at the very least, and the Arena… well, we will get to that.

On returning to the car we were grateful for the shade of the subterranean garage. So grateful apparently that the powers that be allowed us to be there for far longer than we anticipated. In our (occasional) fiscal and (regular) regional pragmatism we opted to have only one driver on the car: Frenchie. And I was excited to see how this would go. But it appeared that we were not going. To be fair, I have not had a car since I sold mine – or rather #4 did, for far less than he should have – when I moved to Asia, and cars have become far more… automated. It is amusing to me how in simplifying things, car makers have made the vehicles so much more mysterious. Add to this that Frenchie is a committed luddite and an indefatigable anachronist, and we were nearly in a Mr. Bean sketch. There was an informative (though French) LED display that kept saying to engage the clutch. I am not sure how I suddenly understood French when I could barely recall how to say you’re welcome after several weeks dans le pays, but suddenly I could. So I kept saying “Put the clutch in.” And Frenchie kept saying, “What is this clutch?” And I would tell her and she would look at me like I was crazy. This went on for quite some time. At one point we were even considering going back upstairs to tell them we had a defective car.

And the shade of the garage was no longer keeping these four ladies cool.

I asked could I just try once, so we switched seats.

And the car started.

I believe we are now  all clear on how to say, and effectively demonstrate, clutch multilingually.

More to the point we now had air con and were en route to what lay ahead: Uzès.

The drive was beautiful and the approach to the village stunning. But we were completely unprepared for what was really in store. I now understand so much more clearly Frenchie’s love for all that is old and gone – I have always been curious, almost perplexed, by her love for the past. She has described it as a love for the lost innocence of people and places. I have felt more that it was a strange resistance to see the world – for better or for worse – as it is. In some cases I even felt like, and tried unsuccessfully to communicate, that her love for days gone by in places is at best limiting to these places as she insists they not progress in any way for the benefit of maintaining an image of something she wants to hold, rather than a reality she should be able to see. At worst it feels repressive and imperialistic. I know that this is not at all how she feels it or means it and that she would tell me I am up to my tricks of over thinking. This may be true. Either way she is my own Adriana, the one who will always long for some illusive Golden Age.

But walking through the gate (yes, gate) on the narrow, cobbled streets, we were transported.

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I knew I was going to enjoy my time here, in a quaint experiential way. But when I turned to look at Nic I saw something different: she was home. I had never seen someone look so perfectly in situ. She belongs in the South of France… if not now, or forever, definitely right then, Nickie was home.

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After dropping off our things and appreciating the wonderfully familiar home of a person who you’ve never met but in knowing his familiars you know him anyhow, we went out. We wandered around a few of the streets to the place du village. We chose a small taverna and sat down for appetizers and rosé. And there we were: a group of people, sometimes friends, sometimes foes, sometimes family, sometimes allies, sometimes travelers, always simpatico: especially in the moments when we were not so sure.

Over wine and bread and wine and olives and wine we considered if people always have choices or sometimes they don’t. We talked about men in Australia and America and Hong Kong. We talked about the recurring narrative that we could not really believe that we were here in this place, at this time.

There were perfect dark corners and music emanating from them… no mystery men… but it was early.

For the next few days we explored various aspects of this part of Provence. We got a wonderful tip on a restaurant from two women who had been sitting next to us at the taverna, La Table 2 Julien, for which we booked a table later in the week, there were villages of ceramics, open air markets, an arts festival in Avignon, the aqueduct, the Tower of Uzès… the list had the potential to go on and on. And not to be forgotten was the lovely home we had at our disposal.

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I think the myriad options gave rise to the more obvious differences in our various objectives. It would be the first time – to my knowledge (save for the regular disparagement for being American) – that these differences began to be a little prickly and sting as it were. (As I have said before, group work can be a struggle in the best of times.) The result of this was a bit more alone time, or tandem time, which was good for all of us, and required that we make our needs clear, which is another good practice.

I was not giving up the Pont du Gard, nor the ancient garden and tower of Uzès. And food, I wanted all the food, though truth be told I didn’t really want to figure it out in terms of restaurants and meals, I just wanted to eat it. As for road tripping and shopping, I felt like there was enough in our vicinity, but was reminded that I didn’t really know what was in our vicinity, which was an undeniable truth. Still, I was not really excited for hours in the car to spend moments in towns I was not sure I could actually see. But for the potential of greatness (positive spin on F.O.M.O.) we went.

Our day to Avignon was important because my young real estate magnate (aka Frenchie) is looking there for her next purchase, but also because of the Festival d’Avignon, self-proclaimed as “one of the most important contemporary performing arts events in the world.” I think it was impressive, I mean I know it was, it was just all in French. So we eventually went to a dance production. I was far more interested in the history of Avignon, it was the home to the Popes for years and there was a big old Palais des Papes, which I wanted to climb.

I did not get to climb this palace. We did however witness a mad conflict between a bunch of French officials who were trying to oversee a memorial for Jewish soldiers who had died in WWII at the same time that a visiting troupe of Korean drummers and dancers was kicking off in the plaza directly adjacent to and below the memorial. There was a lot of unscripted whistle blowing. It reminded me quite a bit of this for some reason.

Avignon is a walled city along the Rhône River with an interesting and complicated history. While it maintains much of this feel, during the festival it is like one giant billboard.

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Following the show we had a walk and lunch and then I took the liberty to scramble across town in search of a particular show poster that I had been unable to pull from the walls (there were so many posters but the one I wanted of course cost €5.) But this run gave me the chance to see the ramparts and the walls – as you know I do love a walled city.

The city was gorgeous and another one of those places that really takes you back, with winding streets and narrow buildings with the colored window shutters on muted terra-cotta colored buildings. I tried to picture myself living there as we considered different areas where Frenchie might find herself. Every time, as with Uzès, I thought it was lovely and sweet, and positively unlivable. I am just not cut out for the provincial, I guess.

Leaving Avignon we were en route to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This town rates incredibly low on my Fabulous French Review. I would like to say this is because with limited time the parts we saw were totally uncharming… so strange for the part of the world that seems to have a lock on charm… and it was unbearably hot. And we were going the opposite way from Uzès so I was confused. The saving grace was that after a quick stop we drove on to Gordes, a place I would have loved to check out further but it was not to be.

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Someday I will go back to Gordes with one of those mythical mystery men – out the shadows or not.

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Our remaining time in and around Uzès accommodated almost all of our needs in different ways. We went to the Pont du Gard, and it was as fantastic as I could have imagined as we were able to walk through the actual aqueduct. Well, some of us were… somehow one of our tickets had been misplaced and in a strangely non-provincial way, the woman who had sold the ticket suddenly claimed she had no recollection of such and event and she would not let Frenchie through. Nic and I were unaware of this until we had gone through the entire aqueduct and sat wondering how we had lost our friend in a one way tunnel. I was a disappointment, though I am not sure if Frenchie was more disappointed in not going through the aqueduct or in the behavior she declared decidedly UN-French from the guide. The day itself was so stunning, it made up (almost) for this mishap.

The Pont du Gard is: an ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the Gardon River in the south of France. Located near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, the bridge is part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometer system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) Because of the uneven terrain between the two points, the mostly underground aqueduct followed a long, winding route that called for a bridge across the gorge of the Gardon River. The Pont du Gard is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts, and, along with the Aqueduct of Segovia, one of the best preserved. It was added to UNESCO‘s list of World Heritage Sites in 1985 because of its historical importance. (wiki FTW)

And basically I just wanted to walk around saying: What have the Romans ever done for us? [“The aqueduct?”]

It was one of the coolest things I have seen. Along with the mural of world heritage sites that listed French gastronomy as one of them. Oh France.

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In our last full day I was able to explore the medieval garden of Uzès which is between the ancient King’s Tower and Bishop’s Tower – formerly used as a prison among other things. This tower I got to climb.

After spending a little bit of time by myself in the medieval garden and exploring the King’s prison and the Bishop’s tower I headed back to our flat. For our last night all together in the south of France we would be driving to Nimes to see Sting perform at the ancient Arenes de Nimes. The drive was easy and the parking was fortuitous. If only choosing an outfit would have been so easy.

We stopped for a light dinner beforehand, although by this time I had waited too long and was crabby from hunger and nitpicking. This is the thing about being in a group: sometimes little things go unnoticed and sometimes they don’t and sometimes they just build up. It is usually in these situations I find that the inconsequential breaks the levee and emotions are misdirected and further misinterpreted. For public consumption, I’ll just say, the one person who I snapped at was not the one I meant to… And I needed a time out.

Or champagne. Champagne is generally a good alternative.

There is no mood that the Arenes de Nimês could not conquer, which for the setting seems completely appropriate.

Built in the year 70 (C.E.) for gladiator combats, animal slayings and executions it was fortified and held by the Visigoths after the fall of the Roman Empire. By the 700s it enclosed a fortified palace and eventually a small neighborhood was established within the amphitheater; home to around 700 people. In 1863 it was remodelled to serve as a bullring and today it is still used for this (gross) practice as well as lots of other public events. It is 130 m. by 100 m. and can seat 16,300. And it has sections still called the vomitoires. Which is obviously awesome. [These are the seats adjacent to the lower level tunnels that facilitate the exits.]

When we arrived the setting was simply breathtaking and this was before we even saw Sting (although, the hipster beard he is now sporting is less breathtaking… but he’s still totally hot. It’s the yoga, I know it.) The show was great, the crowd was entertaining, the weather was perfect. It was a lovely last night in Provence.

The next morning we woke up knowing that we would be heading out our separate ways. Nic and her sister were off to Bruges, Frenchie and I to Spain by way of Marseille. I got up early to walk around the village one last time and bid adieu to Uzès.

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On my return we were readying to go and people were packed, the house reassembled, and we were off.

Except the keys to the house were missing.

Like, totally gone.

Although there were some mild time constraints – more for us than for Nic and Sam who would be spending the night in Nimês – we basically had time. And how hard could it be to find a set of keys?

Suddenly we were looking everywhere. In packed luggage. In garbage. Under furniture. In the toilet.

No keys.

Of course, it was hard not to look to Frenchie who, without intentionally casting aspersions, I might suggest has had some struggles around losing misplacing items. Everybody was verklempt.

Still, no keys.

Until… there they were. On the kitchen table. Albeit, under the tablecloth, but they were there. It was relief incomparable to much I could think of save for having to pee so bad you think you might die and then finding a bathroom. And not dying.

So we were off. Back to Nimês to share a tearful goodbye with our friends and then to the train for Marseille. There was much to unpack – emotionally and experimentally. We had seen so much of Provence and seen how differently people see the same things. There were moments that were challenging and others delicious and still others that were transformative, and some that simply eliminated the need for words.

I suspect those are precisely the sentiments that define travel.

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Les Classiques.

For the days following Bastille Day we were largely on our own in Paris, every woman for herself. This was to accommodate our different tastes and objectives for Paris and was a good thing, if for no other reason than to travel en masse necessarily brings with it the complications of group work, but I also noted that there were moments throughout my days when I considered how the trials and tribulations of a group dynamic can easily be offset by the joy of having someone to share amazing moments with. I do not think that Paris lost anything for me as I traversed the city wide-eyed with my own version of disbelief about being there, but I must say, I can recall with pristine clarity the moments I looked around for a compadre for no other reason than to exclaim: Can you believe this? Truth be told, by the middle of the first day, I was just borrowing other people and their groups with which to share my awe, I mean after all, we were all there together, crowded, sweaty, agape, amazed, dusty, sprinkled upon, craning our necks, making space… whatever. Travelers are a unique tribe, and everyone I met was completely willing to reply – I know, right? AHmazing. 

Having never been to Paris (unlike all three of my fellow travelers) I was committed to seeing some of the things they all could do without. And I understand, I mean the Louvre can be overwhelming at best, and positively maddening at worst, but I was not going to miss it. And I know that I will return every time I go back to Paris, because: AHmazing. 

The only things I did not see that I know I will on my return include the Luxembourg Gardens and the Bastille.

High points from these couple of days included the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile and le Musée d’Orsay. Although, the Louvre and strolling the Champs-Élysées and floating along the Seine and sidewalk cafes and riverside picnics and the Centre Pompidou did not suck.

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And at the end of each day we reconvened in Clamart to share our stories, each of us infinitely pleased with our days and thrilled to hear about the others’ from parfumeries to cafes and cocktails to crowds and beau artes to vistas and gardens, from missteps to rendezvous, we had it all.

And with our own Frenchie to thank for our bon chance.

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We would depart by train for Nimês on 18 July and take ourselves to Provence for some time in the country. But first one last evening in Clamart.

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Where were we, now? Je suis Paris!

As it happens, I began this post one week before the bombings that took place in Paris this past November. And further (as it happens) I was consumed with sadness, frustration, and degrees of separation as I followed the stories that emerged following the attacks. I did what so many did and looked at maps and wondered, “Had I been there?” “Did I see that place?” And of course, I also recoiled and braced myself for the inevitable onslaught of hatred and vitriol that would certainly rise from the dust… the Islamaphobia, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bile. And of course, this was all around keeping the internet buzzing for days. But it did not come from Paris. What came from Paris spoke to exactly what makes Paris what it is: Parisians were not filled with fear and hate. They were not screaming about the danger and immoral nature of all people of a certain creed, ethnicity, or faith. They remained, as ever, precisely what purveyors of terror loathe: compassionate, brave, loving. Of course they were hurting and mourning but they did not let that change who they were fundamentally – at heart. For this reason, Paris won. And Paris will continue to be victorious. We (especially in my own hate-riddled nation) should all take a lesson from Paris.

Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life! Champagne and joy! #Parisisaboutlife

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And this is the spirit of Paris that I experienced and adored for my brief shining days in the City of Light this summer.

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Ah, yes… Paris. Back to the city of love & light to celebrate Bastille Day! We had the good fortune to be able to stay in JM’s place in the 15th Arr. for the fete. Although he fills the space with Airbnb when he is not there, he was willing to let us squat, with one condition, one of his renters wanted to stay an extra night, which meant he would be there with us. Who were we to complain? We were in a gorgeous flat practically under the Tour Eiffel.

When we arrived, it was clear that Leon had just woken up, ah! to be a young college student on the loose in Europe again. He was sweet, if overwhelmed, as four women with what seemed like an over abundance of stuff for our brief stay (But hey! Preparation!) rolled in. As we came in Leon asked me if I was American. As I had begun to do over the previous week, I immediately apologized as I said yes (it is easy to do when one receives a regular amount of criticism for which they are immediately forgiven, “because you’re American”). Leon laughed and said, “No! I love Americans!”

Now this was a nice turn of events. Leon is a grad student in Warsaw (and one helluva smart cookie, I might add) and he had a bunch of questions about the States. He especially wanted to know about California (because who wouldn’t, says this California girl) and surfing. I told him that I had gone to school in San Diego. He looked at me with total surprise, “Really? I am going there on a doctoral exchange next year!” [Hi Leon!]

I mean, really, what are the odds? I guess they are greater than I would imagine because this sort of thing seems to keep happening, but really, this seemed so intentionally, randomly perfect: a Polish student just staying one more night because Paris, and in the house we were staying in because, Paris, and so on and so forth, because: Paris.

For Bastille Day we would stroll the city and make a picnic (here again, the dilemma of the picnic) and there was a concert in in the park at the Tour Eiffel and then of course, fireworks. The city was buzzing. And Paris has a very unique buzz (because, say it with me: Paris). It is hard to articulate… and now I find myself these weeks later still committed to writing about this summer, and the details get fuzzier, but the sensations remain palpable. The city was touched with the kind of afternoon light that remains in the northern latitudes during summer. It was warm in that way of urban places, a little sticky but not humid like we had all come to known in our years in SE Asia, a little gritty, and full up with people in various stages of their day. There was a general sense that everyone in doing their own things was also generally moving in concert with everyone else. Streets were being closed and people rerouted and everyone just seemed to be moving along, changing course when nice young French officers of the law said to do so. Maybe it was all the wine….

We had brought sandwiches (which I made, so, yum) and wine. Interestingly, we could not bring the wine bottle into to park, which explained this odd phenomenon we had been witnessing, which was people buying and then dumping out myriad bottles of water. Ahh… the wine receptacle! We followed suit. I bought a standard water bottle and drank some and dumped the rest. Then we poured the wine into the bottle. We were confused, had we purchased a lilliputian bottle of wine? Why did it seem like there was so little? Was the water bottle so big? Our volume-based comprehension hilariously off, we shrugged at our little tiny amount of wine in our giant water bottle and headed in. On seeing our teeny weenie wine stash the officers stopped us – mon dieu! “No caps on bottles!” They demanded.

What?

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Okay then, we carried on with our open sloshy bottle of wine. In hindsight, that a full bottle, plastic or otherwise, was their biggest concern seems quaint and of a time gone by.

When we arrived for the concert, seating was unavailable, as I had predicted and Frenchie had pooh-poohed. We finally just plopped down on the ground next to a lovely group of older tourists, a very jovial and friendly group of South Americans in front of us, and two sweet young Vietnamese students to our left. We made conversation, ate sandwiches, drank wine, helped people mop up spilled wine, talked about tattoos with the older folks behind us, and took in the fete. It was a basic international delight.

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We planned on only taking in some of the show, and to walk back to meet Nic for the fireworks. A plan easier to conceptualize than to actualize. The throngs of people were so dense at times it seemed like we were all part of one gigantic freakish humanoid organism. We had previously deduced that getting across the river (to a better view) would be impossible with the street closures and such, so we would stay in the 15th and made our way. And really, being in central Paris for Bastille Day was not going to suck anywhere that we found ourselves. (Although, after much time to talk about it on the latter part of our journey and even more since we have all been back, I know that Frenchie was still, ever consumed with ensuring that her ill-prepared compadre [*raises hand*] and her actually ill compadre [Nic] were having a the perfect Paris experience. If only I could have better communicated at the time that for us – and I take the liberty to speak for Nic here – anything and everything was perfect.)

We slowly made our way back to the flat and found to our chagrin (more to hers I am sure) that Nic was still under the weather. No bother, we scooped her up and headed for a vantage point for the fireworks.

As did everyone else in greater Paris at that moment.

Despite of being in a kind of funny spot near the metro station on the Boulevard de Grenelle, the entire spectacle was just that: spectacular spectacular!

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And there it was. The city of light.

When I heard that the Tour Eiffel had gone dark to mourn the victims of the November 13 attack, I could not imagine what it would look like, such a contrast to the Paris I had seen aglow with light. We should all be so lucky to say je suis Paris.

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Allez allez allez Versailles!

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I did not know what to expect from our sojourn to Versailles when we headed out on 13 July. I was not surprised that we left an hour or so later than planned, but unaware of any real consequences that might have. At this point I was learning that Frenchie’s adherence to schedules and attachment to timing was really something of national pastime, not really just an individual idiosyncrasy of hers.

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I was also surprised at how close Versailles is to Paris, so my being perplexed over a delayed departure seemed silly (although the “arriving-at-the-station-just-as-a-train-had-departed phenomenon was getting tired.)

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I knew that this was the hometown of my Frenchie, and as we rode out to Versailles and back in time somewhat for her, I thought a lot about what I would show this group of my hometown, were they ever to travel to the international destination that is Petaluma. It is hard to imagine really, I mean, their coming to Petaluma and the things I might choose to show them. Of course, Petaluma is not home to one of the world’s most famous palaces, so I might be forced to think a little harder. Though, truth be told, I think having the palace made it more challenging for Frenchie to really show us what her hometown was like, because we were all like, “Oh my god look at the palace!” the whole time.

Oh, and we were hungry.

No one wanted to admit it really, because no one wanted to be a pain in the ass, but we were hungry – and a hungry mob is an angry mob. Now we were arriving in Versailles to find out that a) we were too late to rent bicycles in town (which had been another of those plans I was unaware of) and b) restaurants were closing for their midday break… save for McDonald’s. Add to this, Frenchie really wanted to give us a peek into her life, one I know Nic and I really wanted to see. But things were not flowing smoothly. I knew that we were going to picnic. Tthe French, as you can imagine, have their own take on this. Frankly (see what I did right there?) it is actually a far superior take on a picnic than we have here in the states, because it is just so “whatever” (read easy). There is generally very little planning, whatever food is around is gathered up, and you eat somewhere outside. Viola! Picnic. I also knew that we would be seeing some fireworks as the Bastille Day fête would be on the eve of 14 Julliet in Versailles.

As we wandered around looking for a suitable place to eat like a heard of Goldilocks (not too fancy, not too expensive, not too closed, not too not-French, not too touristy, not too fast-food) we contemplated just picnicking – or at least I did because I was carrying quite a bit of weight on my back with our wine supply and wondering when the picnic was going to happen.

What I did not know was that what Frenchie had in mind was: get bikes in town, ride around and see her old house and haunts, get some lunch, ride around the palace grounds, sunset picnic, see Frenchie’s flat, meet our friend Fred (who was our neighbor in HK and a friend of Frenchie’s since school in Versailles), see fireworks and head back to Clamart.

What Frenchie did not know was: we would arrive too late for bikes in town and lunch, her pals would be worried about when they would eat, the palace (not the grounds) would be closed because it was a Monday, and the grounds would close, oh, right around sunset.

What we all would come to realize is, that regardless that “the best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry,” it all works out in the end.

We wandered hungrily around town before finally settling on a ‘too touristy’ place for lunch. But it was not McDonald’s, so victory was ours. I actually really enjoyed my lunch. This could have been because I was starving (see Eddie Murphy and the saltine cracker) or it is just the reality that the worst French food is pretty damn good. I had an excellent quiche and salad, which I may or may not have mentioned is something that food-wise that the French do not understand: greens and vinaigrette is all you are going to see for salad, they simply do not understand how to use and combine vegetables without creme or cheese. Still, yum. Frenchie ordered something of a classic French meal that had random animal parts and sauce. I passed on giving it a go. She loved it. Of course. This is an enduring theme of our friendship: we are a great team for sharing because we have nearly universally opposite tastes in everything. It is really both peculiar and convent.

As a funny side note, we found a dime bag of weed under the table. It was hilarious to us for some reason, and we were quite beside ourselves with laughter, and then: wait, what should we do with it? After going through no end of what ifs, like what if it were a test or a trap, or what if we put it in our pockets or our bags and forgot about it and got stopped at the airport, or what if we just said fuck it let’s smoke it and it was laced with some hideous drug we had never heard of, we left it on the table.

We would be roundly chastised for this later.

Now with our belly’s full (a hungry mob is an angry mob) we headed through town making our way circuitously to the palace. We saw where Frenchie had lived as a child. I liked thinking of her here is this town, on that balcony. I wondered if we would have been friends back then. We walked along streets she knew so well and it reminded me of the feeling I get when I retrace steps so familiar with the fresh eyes of others: it brings up a special kind of acknowledgment of certain things that have contributed to making us “us”, I suppose that is nostalgia.

As we made our way to the palace I was getting excited. Louis XIV was a rather BAMF enlightened despot and I wanted to see the place that he had envisioned that has inspired so much petty emulation by others like Peter the Great and any number of cheap Vegas McMillionaires. I would not see the castle today as it was closed, which was a bummer on one hand because, duh: BLING. But also a bit of a relief since I would have been the only one of our group who wanted to go in and so, now there was no decision to be made.

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Regardless you get a pretty real sense of the place from the outside anyhow. I have always found the story of the Dauphine (Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette pretty interesting and it was really cool to walk around and try to imagine what it was like for these kids to be ensconced in this place. And the gardens… wow.

We got bikes here and so that was one obstacle cleared, off we went.

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There are not really words for the afternoon we spent cycling around the grounds of the palace of Versailles except to say that it was pretty special.

DSC_7652Once back from our ride we decided we would have an hour or so on our one and then meet up to picnic. I was told to be back around 7:30, if memory serves, and so off I went camera in hand. In this time alone I really got to explore and have some time to move at my own pace. Being the timely individual that I am I was punctually headed back to our rendezvous when I saw Frenchie coming at me. This was unusual because, well, she was on time, early even. She was overly relieved to see me, so I knew something was up. What was up was that the park was closing. and we were going to have to get out.

Ha. I laughed, that would be funny being locked in the Palace of Versailles, wouldn’t it? As it would happen, Frenchie had already done that long ago when she had spent her summers working at the palace (helluva summer job, no?) and she “knew” a guy whose dad ran things or something… she was quite cheeky in her omission of details around said guy, so I am going to have to follow-up on that story at some point… And somehow they got locked in. Yeah, clearly more of a story there, no? Anyhow, at this point we made it out.

Phew. And in true hometown fashion, we got picked up by her mom to take us back to town.

On arriving back in town the elusive picnic was soon to be had. And in what turns out to be the French picnicking way, we rocked up to a sweet little bench and ate our food. Just like that. And it was, like the riding around the palace oddly, surprisingly, perfect.

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All along Frenchie had been trying to meet Fred and it was looking like that might not happen. But as we walked back towards the action in the town square, suddenly, it was not just Fred, but what seemed like our whole village. It was a moment that would frame so much of my summer… here I was, somewhere far away from anywhere I knew, and in the midst of the people who had, without thought or warning, helped to create my life abroad. To have friends that are like family in this way is a gift. To recognize it, all the better.

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And on this sparkly night in Versailles I was able to both along with my world wide tribe.

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Paris sans Plans.

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For the week of Bastille Day 2015 I found myself in and around gay Paris. We were primarily based in Clamart, although we would spend the night of Bastille Day itself in a sweet apartment in the 15th arrondissement.

In hindsight, weeks -no, months- out from the trip, it seems so simple, but at the time there were issues around planning, and coordinating and compromising. There are always such issues to consider when you are functioning in a group, but there were certain elements that I think made the adjustments a bit more challenging this summer: time apart, expectations, varied personalities. At the end of the day, we were four people in Paris, with everything we could possibly need or want, but in the moment, making decisions seemed really hard. The players here were three people who know each other well from living as friends and neighbors for years on an island in the South China Sea, and two siblings – one acting as a host and one as a fellow traveler.

Our first full day in Paris had us first meeting at a flea market on the north side of the city. Porte de Clignancourt is a well-known shopping area, known more commonly as Marché aux Puces. This is one of the largest antique markets in the world, which is impressive and also should make it totally apparent that I would have no idea whatsoever what we were doing here. I do not like flea markets or antiques, and I surely was not interested in adding to my neat and tidy >10 kilos of luggage for the next month with second-hand furniture. However, having not involved myself in planning, I felt like it was my responsibility to toe the line with those who had made their preferences clear. Plus there were some great photo ops. Sadly, I seem to have deleted the photo of the gigantic €500 wooden penis.

From the market, where in spite of my anti attitude towards shopping at that juncture I bought a scarf as I had lost my favorite one on the train to London, we headed to the Sacre Couer. Again, I felt like I was just bumbling along with my friends and felt myself wondering for much of the morning when they had made the plans they had, feeling simultaneously left out and relieved to not have the responsibility of possible people pleasing problems by making potentially unpopular choices. I wandered along with the group under grey skies towards what would be one of my favorite views of Paris.

It started to rain as we made our way up the steps, and I was bent on getting to the top, a choice I pushed for. I think everyone was glad they did it in the end.

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Following our climb to the top of the Sacre Couer we headed to Place du Tertre. Now it was sporadically sprinkling adding a sort of appropriate melancholy to this former artists’ district that was now an overflowing tourist attraction. We sat for drinks after looking at the art and my first few dozen looks at le chat noir du Montmarte. I noticed that Parisians love dogs – seriously there are so many dogs, but they seem to really prefer cats as a motif.

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From here we endeavored to navigate down Rue Lepic towards Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge, because tourists. And frankly, I was shameless. I actually considered how I might react if Ewan McGregor came flying towards me in song.

Again, I found myself wondering, how did they plan all this and where had I been? And again, I was happy someone else had done the work to make it happen. The walk was really lovely – neighborhoods and areas that I thought were eminently livable. Except for the whole being-in-France part. But all joking aside, were I able to reside Paris, and it could abide the coming of another Americane, the 18th arrondissement would be for me.

We did some food shopping and made our way back to the hotel where Nic and her sister had been staying; a side drama that had been developing was that luggage had been lost and so there was understandably much ado about this – I would have been pretty buggered myself, especially on learning that the missing bag had reappeared some twelve hours before I was notified… but overall, there was much relief on learning that the bag had returned. As we deliberated next steps I finally spoke up. Looking at all the luggage that was now in our possession, and a good six hours on our feet I was heartily in favor of taking a taxi home rather than navigating the metro – or busses (Frenchie loves busses – definitely more on this later). I stood firm on my position and felt relieved to see that it would happen.

Back at Clamart we fixed a meal and had some wine and I think felt pretty satisfied all around with our day. To sleep we went, well, everyone except me. I had taken to using the late nights to send photos home so as to maintain memory on my iPhone – a strategy that worked well through most of the trip, and I could post photos then too without it being an issue in mixed company… I have always taken a pretty good amount of shit about my use of social media from these friends so I was being sensitive to that. [I do feel that they eventually saw the benefit of my strategy, and I even got them in on the Summer-of-Selfie™. #validation]

All in all as the day had shown, it is clear I did not do the preparatory work I would normally have done for a trip (which many people would already consider pretty lightweight) because I was relying (unfairly) on Frenchie to sort out France because, she’s French. Coupled with trying not to hurt feelings when people said/suggested things that others thought completely ridiculous, we eventually sat around a lovely table in the courtyard of our host’s home and talked in circles while having our morning coffee on our second full day as a group. There was far too much “I’m fine with whatever” from my side – because let’s face it, that is a lie. And there was frustration with collective indecision from Frenchie, our de facto hostess, who while French has not lived in France for more than two decades and is not from Paris. JM seemed to find the whole thing amusing, Nic wanted to make sure everything was perfect for everyone because she is ever the caretaker for us all – which must be tiring, and I fear not outwardly appreciated enough by any of us. [As an aside, I know that for all the years I lived in HK I felt so much better knowing that with my mom was on the other side of the world, I always had someone I could call on who would ably be there for me if ever I needed her, even though I was not her own… and if I never said it aloud Nic, I am saying it now.] 

The thing is, a week is simply not enough time in Paris. A fact Frenchie had made clear months earlier. Add to this that there would be a day trip to Versailles, it was Bastille Day, and we were planning on heading to the South of France in what suddenly felt like no time at all.

Frenchie suggested we focus on les classiques for our time in Paris. But even this was not consistently understood. As the only one in the group who had never been to Paris, I wanted different things, and I think I like museums more than most people… Again, as I sit here and reflect back on it, it seems so silly that there was any issue about accommodating people as we are all seasoned travelers and can manage whatever we want in most places. I think the issue was trying to please others got in the way – for (almost) everyone, and perhaps we should have been a bit more selfish.

Back at the table in Clamart, the conversation seemed adrift, but eventually some decisions were made. And as one might imagine, in the end most needs were met. And although I am still childish enough to pout about people/things that do not meet my expectations, I am proud to say I am adult enough not to put them all out here on the internet.

And really, all of this is just a big reminder about group travel – it is a unique endeavor.

Our decision for this day, July 13, 2015 was that we would go to Versailles.

 And so we went. 

Eventually.

Sei sup mmmmmmmmm: ripple in still water.

I wanted to write tonight. I took care of all the things I needed to take care of today and I was all ready to give myself time to sit and write. But I couldn’t. I mean, obviously I could have in a literal fingers-to-keys kind of way, but not in a metaphorical making-meaning(ful)-meaning kind of way.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

I wanted to write about this video I took from JM’s car in Paris this summer.

I wanted to write about something satisfying. Like about taking a group of high school seniors to listen to a conversation with US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on a Friday night and having them come out of the talk and say, “He is all about the Social Contract, isn’t he?”

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But, no.

I suppose if I were a writer, I would say I had writer’s block. But I am not really a writer, am I? Only in so far as one with an Instagram is a photographer, or one who goes to church is a Christian (I wanted to write about the Pope too, because I cannot get enough of the Pontiff.) Instead, I sat. I considered meditating, but I didn’t want to make the cat move, and I sort of suck at meditation anyhow.

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken,
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air.

I turned 45 this week. I sat with that for a while. 45. Forty five. Cuarenta y cinco. Sei sup mm. Fifty minus five.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

Maybe that is why I can’t think of anything good to write. Maybe by the time you get to be this age, you are supposed to have a whole bunch of real things to write about, and here I sit with my immaculate home and my two cats and some loud Eighties music in my unbearably hip neighborhood, and no typical accomplishments like husbands and divorces and kids and shit to write about.

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

I was born in 1970. Do you know how long it takes to scroll to that year when you are filling out your birthdate on-line? You have to pick your finger up off the touch pad at least twice. That shit is crazy. Nixon was the president and my Grandma M tried cocaine. That would have been something to see.

In 1970 things were pretty fucked up.

I came of age in the 1980s. Do you know how accidentally iconic the Eighties have become? What I know recall about the Eighties could feather your hair. I still love the music, hipsters still love the fashion. We are all still paying for the politics.

In the 1980s things were pretty fucked up.

I got some education in the 1990s: formal and otherwise. Do you think everyone assumes the time they opened their minds is the more relevant than that of others? I don’t know, but a lot of shit happened in the nineties. And then at the end of 1999 the world didn’t end and I think a lot of people thought that was pretty fucked up

I had my mid-life crisis in the mid-90s. Which makes sense because I never really thought I would live very long (which is kind of dumb of me because the women in my family tend to live a very long time.) For whatever reason my mid-life dramz kicked off at 34. It took me about four years to sort that shit out.

Mid-life crises are pretty fucked up.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

On the weekend leading up to my birthday I met someone who is in her mid-30s and appears to be on track to have a midlife crisis just like mine. (Apparently it’s not just movies and politicians from the decade that never go away.) I told her I had to sail away to China to deal with it. She did not get the musical reference, but I am fairly certain she is on board with the rest of it. I predict she breaks up with her boyfriend before the end of this year (not due to my counsel, mind you – I am not a meddler, just a sharer.)

Maybe the reason this birthday isn’t sitting so well with me is that I don’t have anything to be in crisis about because I already got all destructive and ridiculously reckless ten years ago and so it feels empty of purpose. I emerged from my midlife crisis down one Wal-Mart-shopping boyfriend and one suburban tract house, but as my kids would say: I am not about that life.

Life in with the suburbs was pretty fucked up.

You, who choose to lead, must follow
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

This week was my fifth repatriated birthday. The birthday itself was not particularly eventful, but at this point in one’s life, that seems like a win. A dear friend I have known since the 8th grade said to me, “I hope you feel how much you are loved.” Yes, L, I did. And here I am, in a great city, with great hair, a few new wrinkles, amazing friends, no involuntary responsibilities, and I am alive.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

So, happy birthday to me: good hair, good shoes, wrinkles, and a potty mouth, but crisis free. That’s livin’: L-I-V-I-N.

That seems like a lot to write about.

I’ll get back to writing in no time, I am sure.