Our last evening in the city for this go round was spent as such… A final tour courtesy of JM and his favorite auto.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And this is the spirit of Paris that I experienced and adored for my brief shining days in the City of Light this summer.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Once 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.
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.
And on this sparkly night in Versailles I was able to both along with my world wide tribe.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
The first morning I woke up in Paris, I was up before everyone. (I was generally up before everyone always, although Nic would end up giving me a run for the money.) I sort of laid there where I was, in the upstairs bedroom in JM’s chateau in the suburbs, Clamart to be precise, and thought to myself : I CANNOT BELIEVE I AM IN PARIS.
Okay, fair play, I was just outside of Paris, but for all intents and purposes I was IN PARIS.
And it was sunny.
This first day was supposed to be a “planning day” for Frenchie and me so we could work out our desires and priorities before meeting up with Nic and her sister the next day, but first I was going to go meet a friend who was coincidentally laid over in Paris en route to Dominica from the UAE. [Having friends for which sentences like that are apt is so awesome.] I wanted to see Rachel because she and I are friends entirely due to Stuart, and for reasons I am not interested in articulating here, we share a certain understanding of the bloke.
To see Rachel I would head out to Orly Airport so as to keep things as simple as possible for someone moving to the other side of the world with their young child. JM offered to take me there, so I would only need to self-navigate one way, which was kind. Frenchie and I arranged to meet at a fountain near the Notre Dame. How hard could that be? I mean, a fountain in Paris, right?
I had gleaned from the previous evening that JM enjoyed the excitement of vehicular delights, and so when he pointed to his motorcycle and I looked down at my black mini dress, I determined that all bets were off on wise choices. He handed me a helmet and I sighed with relief to know that my cranium would be safe and probably only 90% of my flesh would go missing should a mishap occur on what google maps said would be a forty minute ride.
He grinned reminding me entirely too much of Peter Fonda’s Captain America as I hopped on the bike. It would be fine, I reasoned. I mean, he has made it to 40 – and has a family. He doesn’t want to die.
The ride to Orly was pretty easy surface streets and highways and under beautiful sunny skies. I focused a lot on the sky. It turns out JM does not like to be behind other vehicles on the road, and he sure as shit is not going to be passed by a motorcycle. A couple of times he looked back to ask if everything was okay. I hope in my efforts to be completely cool about all potential outcomes, I hadn’t inadvertently Heimlich’d him. To be fair it actually was a fun ride. I mean, I like roller coasters a lot.
When we arrived at the airport (in approximately twenty minutes) I stepped off the bike and took my hair out of the helmet while adjusting my LBD. No lie, I felt pretty glamorous. Like, here I was coming in hot (in every way) and hopping off a bike driven by a super cute guy, with no luggage and heading into the airport, as if I might be heading off on some crazy spontaneous get away. That could be an great scene in a bad romcom.
And the best thing about black is your sweat doesn’t show, which is awesome.
Although, it does show where one’s thighs were gripping the sides of a black leather seat on a motorcycle. And the strap of the helmet got a little caught up in my windswept hair, so my reverie ended rather quickly as JM sped away.
Entering the airport, I logged into the wifi – which is free everywhere in Europe, as it bloody well should be in America – to check where I would meet up with Rachel. We settled on Laudurée. Tres French. Plus, macrons; like cookies, but a little different.
The catch up was short and sweet and a wonderfully playful bit of punctuation on the Stuart Saga. we laughed a lot, and Rachel remarked how she just knew he would try to take credit for everything were he there because, yes, he was such a cheeky bastard.
And like that we said adieu and headed on our separate ways. Another perfect rendezvous accomplished.
So now, to get back to Paris and a fountain.
I found someone who graciously directed me to the Orly bus, which would get me to the RER, which in turn would get me to central Paris. Stepping out I saw there was a bus there – fantastique! I would get on that bus and be on my way. I proceeded to the ticket machine; like those I had seen before, but a little different.
And then, I missed the bus.
The machine now seems simple, but like so many things, it’s the little differences in Paris, and this weird quasi touch screen with a roller mechanism… just really did not present itself as an obvious option at the time. To be fair the three guys behind me were French and had no freaking clue how to make the machine work either. By the time I eventually got a ticket I would be waiting more than twenty minutes for another bus.
But, the bus ride was easy, and I kept telling myself that Frenchie would wait for me, I mean, to my knowledge she has not been on time to anything since I have known her, and this includes her own events. I was not getting a sim card because I had my American iPhone, which of course is locked, because: America. This meant old school meet ups like we did in the 80s: make a plan and stick to it. It was refreshing.
Until you were 45 minutes late.
On arriving to Sainte Michel with ease I came out of the metro station and promptly turned the wrong way. I include the map below as a weak explanation. Emerging from the RER in the foreground left, I walked towards the intersection and made a right towards the Notre Dame because that is what everyone was doing. I surmised there would be a fountain there. And yes, there was. A multitude. But alas, no Frenchie – or not the Frenchie I was looking for.
I walked in literal circles – well trapezoids if we are really being literal – for nearly a half an hour. Paris urban planning is a little different.
Retracing my steps I headed back towards the RER where the Fountaine Sainte Michel practically screamed at me with its obviousness. Huh. Perhaps that fountain then? I walked toward the fountain and headed left (towards the M in the rear right of the diagram) where I saw a cafe and heard “Amanda?” in English, but a little different.
It was Nickie, seated with her sister, and Frenchie (whose head had been down as she was trying to figure out the wifi to contact me – the figuring out of the wifi would also be a theme of this trip). I was shocked, relieved, delighted, amazed, happy, hot, and thirsty. It was a lot to take in, but I really could not believe we were all sitting here, like the three of us had so many times before, but a little different.
Frenchie and I were supposed to meet Nic the next day as she and her sister would be staying the night in Paris to rest after the flight from Oz. But Frenchie had been nearly as late as I had (!!) and so she had been worried about me as I am generally painfully punctual and she had been walking around the now so obvious to me (like the roller thing) fountain when she had randomly bumped into our Aussie companions. Incroyable!
This happy circumstance totally shifted the day – a planning session would not happen, but phones and strolling the streets of Paris and rosé and catching up would. In what seemed like another lifetime, three women in Hong Kong had made a promise to meet in Paris five years on, and here we were. Same same, but, a little bit different.
We finished our day a top the Tour Montparnasse as a small reminder of where we were. In case anyone had forgotten.
…actually I have no idea about Paris in the spring time or the fall. But I definitely got a kick out Paris in the summer when it sizzles.
Love? Well come on, you know I may be quick to commit, but I remain, as ever, very slow to admit.
I have wanted to go to Paris for a really long time. In spite of all of the less typical places I had travelled, I had never gone to Paris. I am not sure why I never did, but regardless it loomed as a must see. In the fall of 2014 someone, in an effort to impress I suppose, told me he wanted to take me on a trip somewhere I had never been. When he realized I had not seen Paris he began to wax poetic about Paris in the springtime and told me he wanted to take me there in the spring of 2015 for a whirlwind getaway because he had to show me Paris. The clichés should have been a give away that it was a total load of shit, but it sounded exciting enough that I almost forgot that I had already made plans with people who would never ghost me to go to Paris – and the prearranged time was nigh – if we stuck to our original plan we would be in Paris in the summer. Grateful for my ghosting, I would find myself in Paris with my tribe in July.
My arrival in Paris was like a story that seems ridiculously fictitious. Alighting the train at Gare du Nord, I saw (even without my glasses!) Frenchie waving to me in the quintessential (and eventually ubiquitous) blue and white striped shirt.
We had a plan to meet her brother – our eventual host – although we were not exactly sure where. Pretty sure, but you know…
We landed with ease into Cafe A a short walk from the station. In no time rosé was in hand as I sat in ecstatic disbelief that I was IN PARIS sitting here with one of my dearest friends. IN PARIS.
Soon enough JM was on the scene… and suddenly everything was happening in French. I mean everything. It dawned on me that I really and truly knew not a single useful phrase in French. Nothing. Nada. Never have I felt so totally linguistically impotent, it was amazing. And by I amazing I mean, “Holy shit, now what?” Although I have travelled to lots of places where English is hard to come by and signage was not even useful – Kyoto and Beijing spring immediately to mind – the thing that was not synching in my mind is that everyone in Paris looked like they could speak English. I realize that sounds at best ethnocentric, and at worst totally ignorant, but somehow my mind was not getting it that I was somewhere where people who looked like me were not going to be speaking a language I could make any sense of. And French puts a special twist on a Romance language; where I can make my way in Italian, and even Greek… I could not understand a word these people were shuzzing and zhuzhing at me.
For a minute I got totally freaked out.
But then Frenchie and JM came back to English and there was lots more wine and everything was fine again. For now.
We went from Cafe A to a restaurant that JM found on his Fooding app. It could have been the wine, but that food was freaking brilliant. [Eventually, I would learn that is was the wine as the true verdict (read French opinion) would be in and the restaurant was deemed: acceptable. More on French opinions to come.] In spite of the restaurant likely not being as good as it seemed, it did not matter. The reason it actually was so awesome was that I was sitting in the gentle evening light, having a tasty meal (and more wine), with my extended international family, as the sun went down IN PARIS. I was IN PARIS.
Adriana: I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night.
Gil: No, you can’t, you couldn’t pick one. I mean I can give you a checkmate argument for each side. You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.
From dinner we got the first of many Autolib’ cars we would take while in Paris and JM proceeded to take us out on my first tour of Paris. It was epic. Really there are no other words for it.
I said I felt like I was in a movie. I asked the siblings if they had seen Midnight in Paris. They had. I asked if they liked it. They said it was so cliché. I said I felt like I was in that movie. We looked out at the Seine and laughed as we made our way to le Musee du Louvre.
Clichés are not always so bad.
The Arc de Triomphe, le Tour Eiffel, Musée du Louvre… it was a visceral and thrilling night: so perfect… even with a fabulous selfie fail (this too would be a recurring theme as Frenchie and I [not surprisingly] have completely different priorities around photo subjects and composition) due to an inability to come to consensus on what was the important element of the photo – us or IM Pei’s glass pyramid.
In the end, I like to think nous sommes arrivés à un bon compromis.
If this was what Paris had to offer in the summer, then yes – I could love it.
I went to Europe this summer. This trip was both totally spontaneous and not. The nutshell version of the trip is that five years ago I left Hong Kong and a community I wasn’t even totally aware I had become a part of and on my way out I made a plan/promise/wish to meet Frenchie and Nickie in Paris in five years.
Now, as luck would have it I saw Frenchie a few times throughout the ensuing time period – once in San Francisco and twice in Hong Kong – and each time we sort of talked about it but not really. And so last winter as a very
tumultuous painful are-you-fucking-kidding-me kind of year wrapped up I decided I would buy tickets to fly to Europe. I had saved no money for this ad/venture and had only a vague idea of appropriate dates, but on New Year’s Eve I, along with two other people who had had equally challenging 2014s, made a promise to get busy living. So I threw down and bought the tickets.
As luck would have it the dates worked out.
My arrival time in Paris was a little too early for Frenchie and so she wondered if I could change it – no, the ticket was to cheap for that, but I had an idea. I had considered flying into Heathrow and spending a bit of time in London before Paris originally, but airfare to Heathrow is about a third more than it is to De Gaulle for reasons a lot of pilots tried to explain to me and still sound shady. But now, I would be arriving in Paris too early to meet my French friend and something told me Paris was not where I would want to regain my vagabond legs alone (and I was right about that btw) so I decided to book passage on the Eurostar and go to London after all. I would only be there for three days which is clearly not enough time, but it is some time, and frankly sounded nicer than making my way around Paris aimlessly on my own for a few days.
I landed at Charles De Gaulle International Airport around 7:00 am on July 7. I was immediately aware of how much shorter a ten-hour flight feels in comparison to the thirteen hour-long haul I had become accustomed to. Even on American Airlines, which is not a really awesome flying experience. It is weird that those three hours can make such a difference. Anyhow, there I was: groggy, Euro-free, new passport in hand (I had fortunately realized when booking tickets to Mexico for earlier in the summer that my passport had gone and expired. I likely would have never noticed this until far after the fact otherwise. But its emptiness ended up being an issue.)
I was in and out of immigration and the airport (no checked luggage – for a month – make a note) in a shockingly short time. The immigration control in Paris was, it would turn out, quite Parisian: he never even looked at me. As I handed him my passport he was clearly vested in a conversation with his coworker and was not going to pause for me. Not that he made me wait or anything, he just slid my passport through the machine, handed it to me and kept on conversing. He never even looked up at my face. Interesting.
From here I walked on, getting notably hungrier and tired-er, both conditions which have negative influences on my ability to make decisions and discern various shades of reality. I found an ATM! Huzzah. I got some money and walked over to a cafe. I looked at the menu and I just couldn’t even (also an omen as it turns out the French have a shocking misunderstanding of coffee.) Walking a little further on, I found an information office to ask how to make my way to Gare du Nord where I would catch my train to London St. Pancras. The second most handsome man I had seen so far (the first was a handler for the airlines who really should have been naked in a Calvin Klein advertisement on a billboard somewhere preferably where I might see it all the time) was sitting behind the desk. After I choked out some shitty version of nahn parlay Frahn-say, he smiled and said, “No problem, how can I help you?” in the best English I had heard since I left San Francisco – and I had had a lay over in the States. Well, Texas, but basically. From this point I knew where and how to get to the train station. In fact, the information was so perfect that I would end up being stupidly early for my train leading to painful amounts of tired-in-a-public-place, which I have long outgrown along with my backpacker days.
Once at Gare du Nord I was facing a two-hour wait and heaving fatigue. I tried coffee. I tried a baguette with brie and ham (it was quite tasty, but really not helpful). I tried water. I tried more coffee. Nope, nope, nope, and nope. So tired.
Finally, it was time to move through customs to board the train for London. I handed my passport to the Englishman at the customs gate. He looked like a jolly old chap. Fat, grey haired, wearing a cartoonish kind of conductor’s hat like he belonged in some old movie. Then he looked at me. He looked like Brick Top. This was not good.
He looked at the passport. He began flipping through the pages. He looked at me. He continued flipping.
“Where are you coming from?”
“How long you going to be in the UK?”
“Oh, just a couple of days, uh, until Friday.”
“Why such a short visit?”
“Um, it is all I had time for…?”
“Who are you staying with?”
“What is their nationality?”
“I, um, I am not really sure, I…”
“What passports do they hold?”
“Uh, I really don’t know, British I guess?”
“How do you know them?”
“Umm, we met in Hong Kong?”
“What were you doing in Hong Kong?”
“Did you work with these people?”
“Then how did you meet them?”
“I am not sure? Other friends I guess?”
“What will you be doing while you are in Britain?”
“I, I am not really sure, seeing some people, going to some museums maybe?”
“What is your address while in the UK?”
“I, um… oh! Bow! I am staying in Bow!”
I was so chuffed to finally have a real freaking answer for this man because I am sure he had begun to notice my sweat, for which I suddenly feared his interpretation.
“Do you know the address?”
Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.
“Move on to the left.”
I couldn’t be sure if this was the universe offering balance for the ridiculously uninterested French passport control, but I was literally a hot, sweaty, flustered mess when Brick Top was done with me. No wonder people with nothing to hide get tripped up by authority figures all the time. Horrifying.
And you know, he had to stamp my passport on some random page in the middle of the damn thing. Because: WHO DOES THAT? Brick Top, that is who.
By the time I found my seat on the (pretty awesome) Eurostar I was getting that loopy feeling you get when you are exhausted, hungry, dehydrated, and afraid you might be deported. As a result, I managed to: break my plug adapter for the UK, lose my favorite scarf, and miss most of a ride I wanted to see.
But I was heading to London, where I graciously had a place to sleep, places to go, and some people to see for my three days in and around the city. Plus, the train ride gave me enough conscious time to reconnect with that feeling of pure excitement for upcoming adventures brought on by travel – and the reality that this was only the first of myriad steps I would take on this trip that would never have been possible without the kindness and generosity of friends I have made in all kinds of crazy ways all around the world. Those were nice thoughts to doze off to.
And then, there I was.
With only sporadic wifi I was trying to make contact with my hostess for the next couple of days and basically just giving it up to the powers that be that it would work out. I easily made my way to the correct train – and I will say this about the London Underground, y’all have your shit sorted (except when you do not – more on that in a mo) but seriously? You need to price check yourself… And soon enough I was in East London. And as I came up out of the station a super cute, kind of familiar, young guy came up to me with Stevie, a Staffordshire Terrier who I definitely recognized. Just like that, it all worked out. Josh asked where my luggage was as we walked back to the flat, and I basically felt like I had won the lottery: “Nowhere, this is all I have.” I took glee in being momentarily totally impressive (or insane, I don’t really know Josh, but I’m going to go with impressive.) He had been visiting Awon and Mark too, and he was familiar to me because, you guessed it: Lamma.
It was a full house, as Awon’s mom – another friend of mine from Lamma was also visiting, but the kindness of my friends seems infinite. When Awon returned from her studio – oh, did I not mention that this friend of mine decided a few years back to take a course in millinery and she is now sort of a big deal? Yeah, check her for sure – we went down the pub because, London.
I knew I wasn’t really “doing” London up in a big touristy way, I had a couple important items on my personal agenda, but otherwise I really was just there to sort of take in the air. And how fortunate seeing as the Underground decided to strike while I was there. That was epic. And by epic I of course mean: WTF London. But most importantly, staying with Awon and Mark made this all possible and I look forward to giving over my place to them when they decide they are ready to take in San Francisco.
First on my agenda was to meet up with Stu’s sister. This was something that I just knew I had to do, and although I went back and forth between being super nervous and super excited and in the end, I just sort of let go and realized that it would be as it should be (that’s so Stu). The thing is, in a lot of ways the reason I was even in London staying with the people I was had to do with Stu… my return to Lamma, his extended network of friends and acquaintances becoming mine, which is not to say I wouldn’t have met these people otherwise, it is just that I actually did meet them because of him. And to a further point, it was his untimely, tragic, and incongruously surprising death that brought everything back into focus for me and set the tone for the shift that got me moving again – it is so easy to fall into stasis – towards a place where I would up and buy tickets for an unplanned trip to Europe in the first place. That might sound all new-agey and trite, and it may be. But sometimes we need a kick in the head, and it is hard to predict where that might come from. And when Stu died, a lot of really amazing people emerged in my life, and this summer that turns out to have made quite a difference. My kick was less about Stu, or Stu and me, and much more about a not so gentle reminder (again, that’s so Stu) to live the life you want to live and not the one you convince yourself you need to live.
So now here I was and there was an impending tube strike and that was to be avoided. Fortunately the overground trains would not be affected and so to Hockley I went. I had some trepidation – Hockley has a reputation… somewhere along the lines of New Jersey. Or maybe more like Fresno. Or Reno. Except the thing about South End-on-Sea is that it is actually really pretty and it has all the elements of a small town I grew up familiar with, both good and bad. In short, I had a fabulous time.
I arrived and she was waiting for me and in spite of never having met in person there we were. When I think back on it I am still not sure why it was that I felt like I really wanted to meet her, but I am definitely glad I followed through. I think initially there had been talk about the fact that Stu would have really wanted his ashes to be in Lamma – and so maybe we could make that happen. But time passed and urgency subsided and so I was not sure that was it. Then there was the fact that she had been so open and kind to all of us who clamored to her virtual door on learning about Stu, something she did not need to do, and her generosity of spirit was incredible. There was another part of wanting to meet her, like a bit of a missing puzzle piece, because Stu had been so cagey about his family and had crafted the necessary stories that one would, given his proclivities. I kind of felt like somehow I might understand everything better if I met his people.
We went to the local cooperative funeral home – it happens to be where she works as the director. Her son, Stu’s nephew also works there. The full circle-ness is not lost on me and actually has many more layers than I will retell here. But I will say that to meet Stu’s nephew was… powerful. There is something very Stu about him: he is a seeker. I was impressed. We went to the crematorium where the service had been and where Stu’s ashes were buried.
Now, I have had more experience with cremains than I would like to have had in the past year. In fact, one could almost say that at a certain point the death rituals become macabre to a point of inevitable humor. You may never think you will have a Lebowski moment, but I can assure you – it is possible that you may find yourself sorting through a friend’s ashes with a plastic fork looking for some sort token that might have been placed in them to prevent illegal disposal while sitting in the lovely back garden of a pub (there was no token), or you may find yourself on the other side of the world traipsing around under a tree where, here or there, your ex’s cremains may be buried, but eh, that’s really just a formality isn’t it? And the whole thing just becomes sort of absurd in this really touching way: yes, these are ashes, cremains… but this is not your people. It is just some strange reminder that they were here. However the far better evidence of their having been here with us for a time are the relationships and friendships that have been carved out of the wake of their departure. And I like to think that my people would appreciate our collective touches of irreverence in the end.
What is death, if not absurd, when you really get down to it.
We left flowers for Stu and got to talk about all the things that you can’t really talk about in email or Facebook messenger. I’d say we had a moment.
And then we went to the pub.
We had lunch at the Bull and then headed to the local: Spa Hockley. It was a top afternoon, honestly, I could not have imagined it better.
When it came time to leave, there was one more thing for me to grab. So, there we were in the parking lot of the pub, passing ashes… and not for the first time this year did I find myself in such a scenario. I was shown how the container (sealed) could be used as sort of a, um, shaker… like a salt shaker, to spread the ashes (ostensibly to avoid a Lebowski). Oh, and I had a note in case there were any issues with customs because apparently smuggling contraband in ashes is now a thing. That being a concern and these being Stu’s ashes seemed to have a perfect sort of cosmic symmetry in effect.
And then I was saying goodbye, and back on a train to East London. Full disclosure, I got a little emotional on the ride home. But the good kind, you know, more like gratitude than sorrow, but still, the sadness gets in there too.
On further consideration as the train rolled into Stratford, when I thought about the reality that Stu was going to get yet another all expenses paid vacation on me as I was now destined to carry him across Europe and back to the States, I really couldn’t help but laugh. I mean really, that fucker, god love him.
The two days I had left in London were not totally as I had planned because, well, I had not planned. And then the tube went on strike. I wasn’t sure how big of a deal it might be. Let’s just say this: it was big. I persevered and took a bus – or rather I got on a bus, but it couldn’t actually drive anywhere, so I disembarked and walked and talked with people and saw some of the city under shockingly blue skies.
I saw the Thames, the EYE, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circle, Leicester Square, Soho, Westminster Abbey… you know, a lot of stuff really. Needless to say, I was well tired on my return and ready for a nice cold pint.
The day of my departure I would be meeting one of my friends from Prashanti Kutiram. Although we had lived together for a month in what I will only describe here as rather rudimentary confines, we had not seen each other in five years, but like so many have also discovered, the relationships you forge when you are far afield seem to have a special sort of staying power.
This particular friend has just had a baby and so logistics remained flexible – how nice that I had not gotten around to planning. We would meet near St. Pancras where I would be jumping back on the Eurostar to return to Paris. This “plan” allowed me to wander around the East End of London a bit and then move towards Whitechapel where I wandered around the Whitechapel Gallery and then spent some time strolling up Brick Lane towards Shoreditch. In the same way I had to check out Williamsburg and Bushwick because everyone says they are the equivalent neighborhoods to my own in San Francisco… I had to view the London version of the scene. I could feel it for sure.
To the station I went after gathering my things at the gallery where they were totally cool to let me leave my bag for several hours. London’s East End is really quite ideal. For the little I know, I gather it is the area I would land in were I there. But I will never be there because London is doing their best to make SF seem affordable, and let’s just talk about what a load of shite that is.
I boarded the train at St. Pancras with nary a nod to my passport heading back to France. In less than three hours I would be meeting Frenchie to commence the next segment of my trip. I thought on my brief three days in London and realized I was leaving without a photo of Stu’s family or my fab hosts in Bow. I guess we had been to busy in the moment to capture it and relegate it to a status update for others. Maybe next time.
I suppose it is true what Andy Dufresne said, “You gotta get busy living, or get busy dying.”
That’s goddamn right.