Day 1 – Thursday

At the airport much of the pressure was relieved – tickets confirmed, flights on schedule, passports in order, through security. Short flight to Atlanta, our seats separated. Time for a meal, organic salads and soup, and a bit of people-watching in the diverse and well-off international terminal.

The long flight, reading and movies and conversation and uncomfortable naps. An unaccompanied minor sat next to us; Donavan the French 11-year-old moving back after a 2-year stint in the USA due to his step-father’s work. Articulate and mature, he served as our first guide, with both language corrections and suggestions in gastronomy. 

Day 2 – Friday 

I happened to be standing in line for the bathroom when the flight attendants turned on the cabin lights signaling day. The plane full of people in coach wrinkled their faces at this unwelcome intrusion, bodies disbelieving that the time to alight had already arrived. Chasing the sunrise as we were. We landed at Charles de Gaulle airport without nearly enough sleep and began to ride on adrenaline.

The minor differences that mark a world connected by instantaneous information yet disconnected due to the ocean and language barrier between create a battlefield and we managed to make it to the proper tram and to Customs by following the herd. Concern set in near the end of the 30-minute line to get our passports stamped. The clock ran faster the less time remained to catch our train to Lyon. While Sarah awaited our luggage to descend onto the carousel, I searched directions to the TGV. My broken French was enough to ask the question, though of course I was unprepared for the man’s in-depth response at full-fluency speed. I latched onto the one word I comprehended and repeated, “a la droit?” while pointing to the right. We grabbed our bags and increased our pace. Arriving in the nexus of public transit ticketing with under ten minutes to spare, we still had to convert our paid fare into an actual ticket. This you could purportedly do at the automated ticket stands, though entering our confirmation codes resulted in nothing. A uniformed man at an information desk offered our first experience of the French “pfff,” exhaling exasperation at our hopeless ineptitude and pointing to the end of a long line in the TGV office. Desperate as I was with the minutes winding down, I averted the main line and went to the VIP counter where two workers chatted. Unhurried yet compassionate, one of them took our printed confirmation info, printed tickets, and pointed in the direction of our final leg. Now truly at a run, we descended two flights and found track 6 empty. I shoved our tickets to the agent standing on track 4, not quite understanding when he said the two trains had been combined. Thus he had to point into the open door and confirm to my questioning eyes that yes, this train was going to Lyon. We stepped on! As we sat down in our seats, the train began to move.

Known for its speed, I was impressed most by the smoothness of the TGV. As the French countryside rolled by, I tried to appreciate scenery I had encountered only in idyllic prose before. Having traveled the middle U.S. extensively, however, I found it rather the same.

Unable to understand the stops announced over the loudspeaker, I kept an eye on my watch for our expected arrival time. Though many Americans before us had no doubt taken uncouth advantage of the universality of English, I was prepared to put my four years of high school French, fifteen years in the past, to use. Lo and behold, you don’t need to be fluent, merely understandable, and able to communicate with additional cues that have served traveling people for millennia. Plus the words come back more readily than one would expect. “Excuse me, this is for Lyon Part Dieu?” Yes, and we prepared to disembark. 

Part Dieu means parcel of God, donated by a wealthy family after a carriage accident killed their young daughter, presumably at a time when God was a more welcomed figure in the country. Now it is all humans, and humans disappoint, which may describe the persistent French attitude of general disgust and inconvenience.

On the platform our travel plans ended. If Sarah’s sister was not there to fetch us, we would simply be adrift in a foreign land. Somehow we missed each other on the large platform, but after wandering the crowd and station the sisters were reunited.

One metro ride, then another, and we came to the parking garage away from the worst of the downtown traffic. There we piled into the tiny car, in fact their larger vehicle, and entered out beneath the free and open French sky.

The best way to adjust to jet lag, so I’m told, is to stay up as long as possible in order to go to bed at what would be an appropriate hour under the new clock. So we had a family visit, took a walk around the neighborhood, showered, and enjoyed a home-cooked meal. But as 7 o’clock rolled around, I was overwhelmed with exhaustion and off to bed we went.

Day 3 – Saturday 

Wide-eyed at midnight, I read “Empire Falls” for several hours, meaning I didn’t wake until midday. Then commenced our driving tour of Lyon and the surrounding region. We learned of the French traffic habits, making extra lanes, forcing your way instead of alternating, and the motorcyclists’ freedom from all rules whatsoever. Double parking, parking on the sidewalk, and stopping in a lane of traffic while you run in to get your daily croissant all seem to be perfectly acceptable. And if you are trapped by such a parker, you just bear it with a mumbling French grimace.

Outside the city limits we made it to Pérouges. The historical weight of old Europe set in, as we parked and traversed the 700-year-old city. Reinforced with modern civil engineering to ensure its walls didn’t crumble onto hapless passersby, the town still invokes wonder at what grand structures they were able to create back then. Decades-long timelines and serf-labor, I suppose. Light rain made the cobblestones quite slippery; a fall would be extremely unforgiving. We walked the alleyways without incident. Primarily a tourist center now, the ancient apartments still had full-time residents. Imagining living in a centuries-old building and daily traversing its history-laden streets seemed momentarily appealing, though the cold, the small scale of doorways, and poor plumbing would likely cause the charm to wear off within the week.

We stopped in a tavern for beer and galettes (aka sugar pizza), getting a quick rest among the ghosts of mead-swilling pilgrims and peasants. 

The final and single-longest stop at our visit to Perouges was in the church. Devoid of the awe-inspiring grandiosity of slightly newer structures, the church still invoked pious silence. Bare walls, simplicity complemented with carved stone and what must surely have been years of attention to detail. 

The return drive routed through Cremieu, another medieval city. We admired the streets and the castle atop a cliff. Again the scope of undertaking such a project strikes me, particularly in the era in which it was built. How fortunate to be common today compared to that cruel time.

Saturday night back in Lyon we went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. This idea I had seen in canal form in Thailand, with color-coded plates indicating the price with the waitress taking your total at the end. The atmosphere was wonderful, as was everything but the sushi. 

Day 4 – Sunday 

Sunday morning we loaded the vehicle and headed south toward Italy. Crossing the Alps it began to snow, though it was two weeks yet until carrying snow chains for your tires would be required. A stop for food in a little town nestled among the mountainside yielded another cultural experience. Though it was certainly still France, I shall refer to it as Switzerland. We entered a tiny, empty bakery, and before we could stumble out an order, eight other people had crammed in. Being a Sunday, this may have been the only place open in which to order food. Afterwards we packed a few snowballs, absolutely ideal snow for the purpose, and marveled at the blooming geraniums sprinkled with the sudden shower of snow. 

I uttered a little yodel-lay-he-who just loud enough to embarrass Sarah, we piled back in the car and continued our trek over, through, and under the mountains. 

Entering Turin we relied fully on the GPS mounted on the front windshield. A confident geospatial pro and lover of maps, I would normally want to find my own way. But with everything just a twist different in a new country again, and in search of the exact location of our reserved apartment, dear GPS voice, please show us the way.

We parked right in front of the address shortly before the appointed time, and an hour later had had more than enough time to picture every scenario in which this could have been a scam. Worse than losing the deposit was the prospect of finding a new place to stay. A trip to France we were prepared for, knowing at least how to communicate in basic terms. But in Italy, we were true anglophiles, not prepared so much even to say where. Sarah’s sister and niece went round the corner for frozen yogurt, while Sarah and I marched off in search of a bathroom, which we found at the cost of a pita wrap.

Mentally preparing for what to do next, I fantasized about returning to the apartment with all the problems solved. That pleasant rush of relief was delivered as we rounded the corner to our bother-in-law calling to us from the third floor balcony, a sight out of the liberation sequence of a WWII movie. The owner, Mario or Romeo or Luigi, effusively shook everyone’s hand and welcomed us. And why would he slump into an apologetic tone, what’s an hour when you are a lover of life?

We settled. We strolled. We returned to look out from the balconies during the hours street vendors had rolled up and restaurants had not yet opened.

The family that ran the restaurant we would end up in gave us the authentic checkerboard tablecloth feel I desired. The mother welcomed us, the father delivered dishes and presided over the place from his perch. The daughter was waitress, and the son or son-in-law prepared it all in the kitchen.

European dinner is much later, 9pm I suppose rather than 6. So we were the very first diners, and as other tables filled the conversation was mostly in English. Only at the end of our meal did Italian begin to fill the air. 

We shared one bottle and then another. The lasagna was out of sight.

Monday – Day 5

Monday morning after coffee we addressed the concern of how to get to the main attraction of this trip, the food convention Salone del Gusto. We could read the map, but the streets confronted us with the issue of where to find the bus stop. Simply put, traveling to countries of which you don’t speak a lick of the language is a horrible idea. Yet we managed. Both coming and going I observed we were the only passengers that submitted the ticket at a paid fare. If you are in the know it is apparently free. The cross-town bus was also packed full. Old people head for the seats and the aisles are over packed with shuffling bodies unsmiling but accommodating.

The enormous convention put food on my tongue from four continents, and it was slow food, not fast. Delighted though my palette was, none was as thrilled as my legs when, hours later, we found the bee movie theater. Five buildings of trade show booths, and these were the first addressable chairs we had seen. Immediately asleep sitting straight up, I missed the first run of the bee movie. But the third and fourth run-through had me transfixed, catchy as the tune was, with its message opaque through the language barrier. My main understanding was bees are in trouble, and Italian bees go, “bfff, bfff, bfff,” rather than “bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.”

After the event we split off from the family and walked Via Po in the chilly evening. Via, Rue, Platz, Vag, Camino, Street, each language with its different sound for a common thing we all encounter, each with a ring poetic or common or harsh. The blend of poetry and activity transforms a place into an icon, though just a thoroughfare connecting other places, it becomes a destination itself. Via Po has that combination, making it the most enjoyable piece of the city that we got to now.

Within walking distance it certainly contrasts with nearby Giardini park, where three men were doing drugs on a park bench, and a group of teenagers were playing a game that seemed to be chicken – involving one subject standing beneath the swing set frame, another standing thirty feet away lined up with a kickball. The goal of the first player was to stand still in the line of fire. The goal of the other was to blast him in the face. An audience huddled together on one side of the makeshift field of play, a line waiting to kick on the other. Any result during the moment of action brought an eruption of noise from the crowd, jeering a stander who flinched or a kicker who kicked way off the mark. A close call sent the wildest laughter and the thrill of potential disaster bringing the excitement of life. I did not see a direct hit, but unsure how they picked victims to stand beneath the swing set, kept moving right along.

Via Po and the car free portion of Via Montebello, which went in front of the museum of cinema, that was the place for me. Cafes and shops and things locals do, namely eat and see a show and talk about so-and-so in another part of town. Later we ate at a white tablecloth pizza place. Five tall attention-grabbing women come in after us and received the fastest service I saw at any time in Europe. I had one remaining ideal I longed to witness in Italy, the fat cook with a sauce-stained tee shirt and towel draped over his shoulder. He emerged, casually joining the other staff in an impromptu meeting around the register where they each snuck their gaze at the ladies.

Day 6 – Tuesday 

The Egyptian Museum in Turn is no doubt impressive, open mummies and fifty foot scrolls of the death rites in varying forms of hieroglyphics. Our brother-in-law observed that without story, it’s just piles of stuff. The story that emerges when tying together the pyramids-full of items preserved beneath storm and sand so long is what daily brings people to file past the sarcophagus of Kha. A culture is known for what it leaves behind – Egypt for the memorials its rulers dedicated to themselves, and surely us for steel buildings and mountain ranges of trash. 

Day 7 – Wednesday

Sleeping and rising on a constant schedule seems perfectly suited to our bodies, yet we fight that impulse like toddlers, never wanting to sleep when our body tells us for fear of missing some good activity in which other people are engaging. Changing time zones by seven hours is a more sudden force than staying up too late watching television or going out, which merely punishes you with lethargy. Coming back is much pleasanter than going over, as turning back the clock you are simply tired early, and for a time we found it easy to go to bed before 10 and rise at 6 and we loved it. Going over, unable to get restful sleep on the plane, ideally we were to live one 40-hour day, then be on the local clock. But five days after arriving, I was still waking wide at 2am, reading until morning, then sleeping again until nearly noon. 

Thus Wednesday was an around-the-house day. Sarah and her sister went off together, I was at home with our niece and her lieutenant colonel father. She and I jumped on the trampoline, which she had been talking about since we booked our flight. Then I laid down and a spike of exhaustion hit and I wanted to throw up or cry. She bounded on to the next activity as chipper as I was forlorn. 

It was Halloween. And if the family was educating their daughter to the wider world by passing a few years in France, they were also making sure she experienced an American childhood. The child traced her chosen design on the face of a pumpkin, then we scooped out its guts together before her father began the detailed work of carving the scene. Later we would head off to a neighborhood where some of her friends lived – a true subdivision, one of few in Lyon. Most neighborhoods in Lyon have sidewalks lined with walls, gates far from front doors and an environment wholly unconducive to trick-or-treating. Add that to a culture that simply didn’t share the American version of Halloween, though kids no doubt love it, and you did not consider sending your 10 year old daughter out to knock on the doors of neighbors who might inadvertently scare her well and truly. But this one subdivision seemed perfect for it, and through some prearranged missive a dozen plus kids met on the hilltop of the grassy park as dusk fell. One of the fathers invited everyone back to the house to watch the opening sequence of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and have fresh cookies before heading out to get more sugar. The kids stayed together, an athletic boy leading the charge, an excited pre-schooler trailing the pack, as they rang methodically every single house in the community. 

Day 8 – Thursday 

Thursday was All Saints Day, meaning, in lands formerly dominated by the Empire that was in turn dominated by the Catholic Church, most shops were closed, though I imagine that like in America fewer people had off year after year, starting with the low in power. Bottom lines and holidays cannot make sense of their differing philosophies on life. So as we entered the complex to Parc de la Tete d’Or, the boutiques were closed, the casino open, the hotel staffed, the offices closed for an implied four day weekend. 

The park was established 150 years ago to make nature available to those who otherwise had no access, namely the urban poor. Though not as large as NYC’s Central Park, the effect is similar. In a city with little green space, the giant park draws people in droves. Joggers jog in a passing fashion show, lovers canoodle on either side of the line of public propriety, parents and grandparents walk while children burn energy brandishing twigs and running in circles. Maintenance men pass in trucks no larger than the Power Wheels that chunky Texan boys receive for Christmas. The water trickles crystal clear. A homeless man catches a nap in the sun.

In part of the park sits a zoo, lions and monkeys and deer. We walked with a coffee to warm our hands with no particular place to go.

Again with the bathrooms, I kept my eyes peeled but an hour later still hadn’t found one. I left our group, certain the food stands would have to have facilities nearby. What they did have was a couple of trees which a desperate five year old boy found to be perfect, acceptable facilities. I did consider it, but determined what a cop may consider cute from a child might be arrestable from a grown man.

The afternoon passed as a family day should, with excitement caused from time to time by swing sets and flamingos and Nutella crepes, fresh air and a bit of healthy exercise. That night we watched television, aspiring gallery artists on Knockout Island, which hooked me immediately and four episodes later Sarah thankfully forced me up to bed.

Day 9 – Friday 

Lyon sits in a bowl; atop the rim sits a church. From the Fouvre you can observe the city and get a precise understanding of its size. In the distance sits Mont Blanc, which seems smaller and more reachable than it actually is. A Roman ruin sits in majesty over the city, still used as an amphitheater. The funiculaire pulleys itself, one up as the other falls down. The downtown square steams from the coffee cups of bundled-up patrons and the nostrils of the horses sculpted on the fountain from bronze. Across the square through an arch the path opens to a courtyard preceding an art museum, and we circled the courtyard observing the sculptures until we sat on a bench near an old French couple nodding, smiling while the man in corduroy pants and jacket philosophized at them from beneath his beret.

Vieux Lyon clicks with the heels of the squeezed-in crowd on its cobblestone streets, breathing the scents of sweets vendors and echoes as a bottle hits the stone when an old woman falls and people help her to her feet.

All this I ingested like prepared foods and aged wine, and when I had eaten I could not say anything about the meal but that I was fuller and more nourished and more aware of the scope of creation around me for having eaten it. It digested as I rode back up the funiculaire and back in our car to our temporary home and as we departed the city and still. 

Day 10 – Saturday

The family bid us adieu, with transport all the way to the train car to ensure no close call as before. Elevated through the city and our last look at Lyon before it popped us out to the countryside where the view was lush and quaint. The green hills, brown fields, and blue sky made a cottage sandwich and I imagined a farmer stepping outside to wave at the travelers, though if in fact he had been outside and seen me waving he probably would have just grunted “bof”. 

Near our arrival the TGV passed through a copse of trees and as fully as the countryside surrounded us before we were now fully encompassed by the city. If there is a suburban transition I could not notice it, and certainly not at 250 kph. 

On the platform I felt we had truly arrived in a foreign country, our crutch of Sarah’s sister’s fluency gone. My nationality-betraying accent annoyed the workers of both information desks I visited, and as forewarned I immediately hated Parisians. Once we did manage metro tickets and an understanding of the correct lines to take, the gate to enter caught our bags separately, the struggle to unbind them increasing my annoyance. Yet we managed, and exiting at St. Michel and the left bank of the Seine we drank our first draft of the city. 

For my taste, apartment rental far exceeds hotel stays. Fewer mirrors, dimmer lights, and less bleached sheets, yet more space and a residential flavor. Each day in a hotel one feels the need to get out of the room and into the city tugging at every moment, while to recline in the apartment can be both restful and cultural in itself. Plus you are not overwhelmed by the luggage and sniffles of road weary travelers, being one yourself is exhausting enough. 

Our apartment, then, up three flights of unlit spiral stone, a medieval crypt if only I knew the building could not possibly be that old. Our window looked into the courtyard, the bed and couch in a spacious studio, the kitchen too small to rightfully be called one, the bathroom awkward and foreign. Perfect. We unloaded the weight and exhaled. 

7 rue St. Charles is the perfect place to be introduced to Paris. The Latin Quarter alive with shops and food from every ethnicity. Perhaps the best place to window shop in the world. Too full of tourists, some might say, but the scent of visitor I would not be able to wash off on this first trip. Too much to look at, too unfamiliar, too much wonder on our faces to condescend that we were anything but the very likes of which this arrondisement caters to. 

South to boulevard St. Germain for window-shopping and exploration, we stopped for our first Parisian meal. What they lack in good cheer they make up with their commitment to food. At an uncelebrated corner café, I loved a ham and cheese croissant while my wife enjoyed each bite of her salad. I will spare you the detail of every meal and every bite, but what stood out to me was that not just the composite, but every element of the sandwich was perfect. The croissant soft and fresh, the ham thick and flavorful, the cheese creamy and smooth. So then we bought groceries and went in and out of the apartment and surrounding streets until at 6 it was time for the Vivaldi concert. We had a coffee and walked across the Seine to the Saint Chappelle, a monstrous building still used actively as a justice court. These giant buildings are in themselves cities, with police and sewer departments and weather forecasts sometimes different on one end from another. 

We queued up and, after entering, found ourselves in a foyer where others stopped in silence though I didn’t know why. I asked simply vous etes tout ensemble, and a German man said No, then the whole foyer began chattering in English. A Canadian couple turned and entered our small party, then the German said there must be no French here except for me. I laughed and said, "No", my American accent now clear, but still it served as a compliment that will massage my ego for a very long time. 

Inside the city-building was a chapel, ornate and tall as they all are, with outside air blowing in freely so that I kept my hat on throughout the performance. My vocabulary for classical music includes no more words than “you know, dad a, dad a dada dad a,” but the six performaers were good and passionate and in concert with one another. I waited until others started clapping before joining in, as sometimes there were pauses during which you were silent, and one errant noise would have ruined the fantastic burst they were about to enter into. I have listened to the Four Seasons on youtube before, and this version sounded the same but better, and instead of an immobile sunset picture in display there were gilded arches and musicisans in tuxedos bouncing about. The lead violin swayed violently and turned to face the other performers when their instruments entered into an impassioned debate. He was the central figure and we wondered if he was someone famous. After it was over they bowed as they left the stage only long enough to re-enter and play one segment of the performance in encore. A short segment, followed by what was surely a helpful tutorial if only it had been both louder and not in native-speed French. He described the action occurring in the story of the concert, and how the violin conveyed the story. A bird chirping happily, a hunting party, dancing, crying ruefully and crying desperately contrasted here in a lesson made the language of the violin clearer, more beautiful and pregnant than any verbal language and the couple from Philadelphia behind us with the woman who taught music history at Temple University probably thought so even more. 

We returned through the rue de la Hauchette and at le Chat qui Peche had another meal that couldn’t be beat, gasping with eye rolling pleasure with each course.

One day in the past a friend and I passed a most serene day. We hired a fishing expedition on a smooth, still lake in New Zealand. The mountains showed as clear and bright on the surface of the lake as in the sky-backed horizon before us. I have not seen a more perfect reflection since. We sat in a stone ruin beside the lake and each read our own copy of The Old Man and the Sea. Later we entered through a rusty gate and passed the sheep grazing to approach sandstone cliffs at the foot of which meandered a wide shallow stream. We climbed on the cliffs until we slipped and became sufficiently scraped, then finished the book on the bank of the stream.

And so, while in Paris residing in the celebrated area in which Hemingway lived and worked and read and drank, I felt I ought to read what he wrote about his time here. A Moveable Feast was written in the ‘60s about his time in the ‘20s, happy and young and married and humble. Even removed as it is from the present day, where Shakespeare And Co. is a tourist destination as much as a bookstore and everything you have ever heard of carries its meaning in a trinket more than in its authentic origin, still his descriptions seem more helpful than the commercial factoids of the tourists guides. Except for the map of the Metro. The map is the blank canvas of the city, upon which you paint your own view and experience. I studied the map, its colored lines and stops, more than any other single feature of the city, which must be true of my trips to New York too. 

Day 11 – Sunday

Sunday we woke and I walked down to the boulangerie for a fresh baguette to go with our groceries. Most things are overpriced in a dense touristy area, but if you want to live on bread and Brie, then you could live a gourmand spreading cheese like warm butter on bread still hot from the oven. 

Entrance to the Louvre is free on the first Sunday of each month, so we headed that way, along with the rest of France, and possibly Britain and a smallish province of China. A new plan emerged, and we walked the Champs Elysees. The Jardin de Tuleries is, well, is France, as is the Louvre and Palais Royal and every other extravagant, looming, impressive, maintained, and tourist-trapped icon. One could take photos to make a coffee book as well as take photos that explored the unattractive, filthy, sectioned-off-for-repair side of the same park. We strolled slowly amid the crowd, which is the perfect thing for a couple to do. 

From the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe is reminiscent of the National Mall in Washington, DC, if the Korean and Vietnam memorials were replaced with Times Square. We bought an Eiffel Tower keychain, twisted through the hedges, sat on a bench by children playing with sailboats in a fountain. Posed by an ornate lamppost, posed by the FIA, stood reading signs in front of the art museum Grand Palais, had a cappuccino and a bite to eat, went into clothing shops, and stood at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe.

We metro’d back to the apartment to refresh ourselves before dinner at Jim Haynes’. Along the way we stopped for a momentary concert underground. Perhaps you have seen a violinist, even two, playing in the NYC subway. Well this impromptu group included 4 cellos, 1 bass, 2 violas, and 6 violins.

Jim Haynes is something of an icon among English-speaking visitors to Paris, reportedly hosting over 100,000 guests in his flat with weekly Sunday dinners for the past 30 years. A theater producer, travel writer, and chef, he appears to have lived a life of good food and conversation to the fullest. Indeed now he was gruff, not impolite, but surely he had seen hundreds of me before, and his main interest now seemed to be in facilitating conversation among others while brooding on his stool stuffing the envelopes of voluntary dinner payments in his apron. 

“Barbara Daniel” he would say, knowing everyone’s name as he did from crossing their name off the reservation upon entry, and at that Barbara and Daniel could launch into conversation while Jim looked for more individuals standing shoulder to shoulder in his packed flat yet not yet speaking to one another. We met a Google engineer, chemical salesman, UN weapons inspector, students, alleged writers, and others whose employment never came up. A delightful older couple, refined, steady, and gently looking you straight in the eye gave us tips from the expanse of numerous trips to Paris. Sarah and the woman remarked on the dreadful conditions of public bathrooms in France, and the woman advised hotel lobbies, in particular the art deco remodeling of a Hilton in the 8th arrondisement. “Just walk through like you know what you’re doing,” she said, “before the staff at the desk have the opportunity to stop you. Dressed nicely, you will look like you belong, and especially once you’re older, you can get away with most anything.” And she told a few travel stories of things she had done for which she had seen younger people confronted and scolded.

We left fat and happy and Sarah clung to my arm along wet cobblestone as we traversed back to our side of town. We sat across from a smiling homeless man drinking beer on the metro, and I wanted to ask him why among his belongings he carried a large and awkward ironing board. I imangined he responded, in English, “why, who wouldn’t want a table ready-made anywhere they might go?” His bright, alert eyes looked forward in the direction of movement, though we sat sideways facing each other, and neither his eyes nor his face bent beneath the strain of an uncertain immediate future. Either he possessed a magic formula for happiness in squalor, or he had not been subject to street living long, or the beer I watched him crack open was his first after a long dry spell and he was truly happy to meet again an old friend.

Day 12—Monday 

Our anniversary, and we made no effort to leave the apartment before noon.

Then into the crepes café which had only five tables and the kitchen was right there between me and the walk-up window. Crepes and galettes and café crème, another outstanding meal. We learned the best way to order, by the way, which is to split a meal-deal (called a “menu,” while the menu is called “la carte”). This ensured just the right amount, not too much, though if we were very hungry we would add an extra appetizer. This way we were not forced to eat beyond comfort, plus it made me less inclined to lament the price.

As a sign we had begun to truly enjoy the place, I felt annoyed by the loud couple that walked in and ordered straight away in harsh English. “What makes you think they understand you?” I thought, “and how would you react if in your homeland someone walked up to you and spoke French?” At this particular establishment the waitress/line cook did not understand it well, but with pointing and inquisitive nodding in the end they reached comprehension. Most places did have an English-speaker, for no one doubts its preeminence, but the suggestion given us proved true: speak French, at whatever level you can. They will know by your accent on the first syllable that you are American or British or Australian, and will respond in English if they speak it well. If they don’t, your broken French will suffice, after all they are at work and their goal is to move the process along. I saw in the moment the offensiveness of assumption in not even making the attempt. It is as if you enter someone else’s home with dirty shoes and speak down to them by demanding they adjust to your superior customs. Humility goes a long way in life.

We walked through Notre Dame. 850 years hits you somewhere on the U-shaped path carpeted for tourists - for me it was between the fourteenth and seventeenth SILENCE sign. The same knights memorialized in stone behind the altar strode these actual halls. Strange, the feeling that historical fiction might actually be based in historical fact, or at least that it occurred to real flesh and bone. 

We walked the Parisian streets in the rain, in step beneath an umbrella left by a previous renter of our apartment. The French phrases and overused icons adorning the transparent plastic dome which kept our heads and shoulders dry only added to the look which may have been nauseous to those who detest public affection, but which fit perfectly well in this particular city. 

So we metro’d to the mall which sponsored the free map we used, its advertising paying off the day the rain came to stay. The interior dome was pretty, but in the end we concluded it felt a bit like Harrod’s, while we preferred the local feel of boutiques in other districts. The lowest level is devoted to shoes. I sat while Sarah shopped. I heard a middle-aged American woman say “I have never seen so many shoes in my entire life,” and I unloaded a few days worth of thoughts into my notebook on top of coats piled in my lap. 

A stunning tall yet very young teenager fell in love with a pair of audio headphones, an American brand with a smart display showing just four models among the eighty thousand styles of shoes. She admired the form, the sleekness, modern curves and fuzzy ear pads. 

She motioned to her mother who retraced a few steps with exasperation, picked up the price tag and gave a quick and harsh No. Twenty minutes later she returned, this time with her father. Again she praised the functionality and design of the pair, pulling out her phone and insisting he listen to the musical quality. His No was gentler and happier, with a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the side. She returned a third time, as if in parting, to touch the prize one last time, long ruefully and with regret that cruel life should keep them apart. 

Day 13 - Tuesday

Tuesday I was up very early, Dad early. Getting up with the dawn puts you in a world as different from the late-rising mode as Europe is from the States. Similar, no doubt, but so much is cast at a different angle. I wrote. If I could rise and work productively always during these hours, a different story would be written and life lived. In the streets the crews were sweeping trash from the sprayed down alley curbs. Corrugated metal doors were drawn down over shops, boulevards beginning to fill with traffic. Like a writing desk when cleaned and approached fresh, the streets in the morning draw your eyes to new corners. An environment supports many types of lives. Lichen, birds, and squirrels all use the same tree. 

Notre Dame opened and I entered while they were arranging the ropes and partitions that would queue tourists later in the day. The solemnity of a holy place makes your spirit still and reflective. The fame and age of this particular building compounded that feeling. Yet concrete is cold, an altar is not God, and I went there feeling reflective rather than having the feeling thrust upon me. You do not need a magnificent structure to seek God, but while here, Notre Dame will work just as well as the apartment or the bus. 

Parishioners gathered, many touching the pulpit before sitting for the first mass. I prayed until curiosity overtook me, not often observing Catholic ritual, no different perhaps than at a neighborhood church, but today more poignant in the most well-known of them all. The bag lady, the businessman, the young woman clutching her rosary – the same in all but fashion on this chancel 800 years ago. I departed just before the mass began.

We had a breakfast of baguette, salami, strawberries, oranges and brie, then headed for the train to Versailles.

I imagine much is written about Versailles, but I have no interest in the ornamentation or history of when what was where or the custom of which person bowed to whom and why. The only story I’m interested in is the mind of the line of kings that felt the compulsion to build it at all. From the pyramids to the sheikh’s initials in the desert visible from space, Versailles stands as the most ostentatious example of human nature run amok. Marie Antoinette, perhaps nauseous from the gilded everything, had an entire shire constructed so she could slum it like a villager. The vast, vast gardens, the fabric walls, the fountains and sculptures at every turn – Louis XIV’s ego ballooning with no one there to pop it. No sooner could one addition be made than another initiated, thus it was always under construction rather than achieving a final, perfect state. The glory of commanding worship from your subjects, it appears, comes not from a symmetrical gold mansion, but from keeping an increasing number of them at toil within view of your window. Much of Versailles’s grandeur was lost when its furniture was reappropriated during the French Revolution, and as we walked away I thought the village and the castle as ridiculous as Disneyworld.

We trained back, chatting with a Microsoft employee in country to work on standards for html5, exiting at the foot of the Eiffel tower. Dark sky, tower lit up, I felt romantic framing the photo of Sarah alongside the tower’s peak. We ascended, reading the historical billboard at each landing, walking slower than we could have and never tiring out. From the so-called second stage you could explore the city with your eyes, which we did until we were satisfied. The very top can be accessed only by a single elevator, and the wait and the cold and the good quality of the view we had already enjoyed caused us to end the ascent there. We bought an ornament for our Christmas tree in the gift shop then took the elevator down. Imagine that job, each day to work you ride up the Eiffel Tower to work in what amounts to a shopping mall kiosk.

Catching the RER is not the same as the Metro, so when we reached the B platform and a train sat with its doors open before we had a chance to educate ourselves on which direction it was going, we hopped on with a fifty percent chance of getting it right. There was also a fifty percent chance of getting it wrong, and on this we succeeded. I compounded this mistake at the next stop when I failed to press the button to open the door, expecting that every door opened at every stop like the Metro. It is not the most painful lesson I have ever learned by experience. At the next stop we found the crossover to the other side of the track far away, and a sign indicated our first very long wait for a train. When it rains it pours. However we strolled the underground darkness arm-in-arm as in spring sunshine along the Seine, her tilted head brushing my shoulder, my eyes alert for pickpockets or other assailants targeting such an unsuspecting, distracted duo.

Wednesday – Day 14

Our last full day in Paris I jumped out of bed like a kid on Christmas, dashing to the window to pull back the curtain. Sunny, no, but also not rainy. An overcast sky was as predictable as slow service in this town, and I thought the clouds would blow away as surely as that first bite of duck béarnaise made you forget it took fifty minutes to arrive. This meant my excitement was still on track, and we would rent a moped.

Let me tell you why Paris is the number one city worldwide for mopeds.

1) They are ubiquitous. Motorists are accustomed to looking for them. No matter how stupid a maneuver I pull, recalling that the car has passed crash testing standards while I’m flesh-exposed on a Vespa, it was less stupid than what another moped did on the previous block. Sure you must still ride defensively, but it’s less likely some old lady is going to clobber you and then exclaim “I never even considered there might be one of these contraptions driving by.”

2) Fast in street, slow in sidewalk. The rental agent told us, “park anywhere you want”. Sidewalks, courtyards, booths in a café, there seemed to be no limit to where you could lock the thing without objection.

Then there are the street rules, which at first glance seem chaotic and intimidating. When we first arrived in Paris I thought it too risky a chance to take. 

All bikes to the front at a stop light. Maneuver between lanes of stopped cars and trucks, or slide over to the lane for oncoming traffic, your choice, to join the pile of mopeds between the first car and the crosswalk. 

Keep your eye on the little light. A stop light is not hung out in the middle of the intersection in Paris like in the U.S, but on a pole immediately on the curb at the crosswalk. Thus if you are the first car (or one of several mopeds), you cannot see the light which towers above your roof. Therefore they have a mini stop light tree also on the pole at eye level. The reason you keep your eye on the little light is so you can zoom out ahead of other traffic the moment it turns green. 

Ride the wave of open road powered by tiny engines whizzing and an army of Smart cars behind you, making noises of pure glee as you see the sights at fifty times the walking pace and one twentieth the effort. 

Paris is divided into arrondisements, essentially boroughs or neighborhoods or districts, and our little two wheels touched the 5th, 6th, 14th, Gentilly, 13th, 12th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, and 7th. Gentilly is outside the Paris freeway loop, finding ourselves there meant it was time to revisit the map. Their road system makes sense, it’s perfectly organized, but I’m from a planet with parallel not radial grids. Sarah was convinced we had gone over the freeway East, while I was already making plans to swing by Sacre Couer next since we had gone so far North. It took some time to orient ourselves since Gentilly is actually South of the city. 

Your internal compass does not immediately adjust when what you thought was up is down, so it took several minutes before we could make sense of which way to go and whether to look left or right for the landmarks for the next stop on our adventure. 

The Pompidou Center is a museum for modern art, although the exterior was modern art enough for us, as we loaded up on knick knacks in the surrounding square for gifts for those back home. Soap and kitchen tools, liquor and a pinwheel that spun with the rising heat of a candle. 

A street performer, a crowd, a cobblestone sidewalk. A galette and coffee when what we wanted most was access to the bathroom. A couple blocks over to Le Marais. A falafel as big as your head. High end boutiques filled with clothing and interior decor. Parisians know window displays like Americans know Limited Time Offers. 

Back on the moped we maneuvered from alley to rue to boulevard. One-way streets forced us into frustrating circuitous 270 degree turns more than once, and getting stuck on an extra dense thoroughfare was no particular fun. But once you found the magic street, one that crossed a fair number of cross streets without veering wildly in the wrong direction, and that was thin enough to be almost devoid of cars, you could scoot right along, absorbing the vibe of another district as you crossed. 

The radial design drew us back toward the center, again a large landmark surprising us when it related the fact that we were at least ninety degrees off our presumed direction. The Place de la Concorde came upon us, this laneless giant roundabout which we had crossed previously on foot. The mere sight of it excited me, and I suggested we head west to the loop around the Arc de Triomphe. Sarah forbade it, as she had before we started, though I thought she might like the opportunity to do so again. 

At the crosswalk in the center of Pl.d.l. Concorde, we hit a red light along with a pack of mopeds and motorcycles. Cars lined up behind. As the green man turned to a red man, we watched the little light and I described to Sarah how the start of a motocross race worked and what was meant by hole shot. A dozen bikes fit across this cobblestone path. A dozen!

We took off at the drop of the gate, crossed the Seine and rounded the Armory. Then our moped took flight, peering soon over the Atlantic, Sarah gripping tightly until we touched down in the U.S. to be processed through Customs.