03 August 2012

The best thing that you can do is take whatever comes to you

I have a lovely friend who is from the south of France. She is a woman of enormous energy and tremendous conviction. She is tiny and gorgeous and well-dressed, even when dressed casually. I can look at her, and I can see, rationally, that she has an overly large nose, skin that is damaged a bit by the sun, hair that's just a little over processed. But on her these flaws become, perversely, things of beauty, possibly because she just radiates. She rejoices in energy, health, grooming, natural good looks, and good nature. Around her, I tend to feel like a huge, clumsy creature, ungainly and unsophisticated. I know my inadequacies are in my own head, which tend to make them more bearable, and the pleasure I take in our friendship is tremendous, which trumps however monstrous I might feel.

That, in a nutshell, describes my visit to Paris.

As much as I love to travel, I will freely admit that Paris has never been on my must-visit list. Of course, I've seen the movies, I've read the great (and not so great) French authors and French philosophers. For whatever reason, though, no imagining of this city has ever grabbed me in the way that other cities have.

Not, of course, that I would turn down an opportunity to go there.

Arriving anywhere after a 10.5 hour flight is disconcerting: the sun is too bright or the clouds make everything sinister. I long ago devised a way to move my family through jet lag quickly: get where you're going mid-day, check into your hotel, and then head out the door for the afternoon. No naps! An early dinner and early to bed, and the next day, you're good to go. In Amsterdam years ago, I walked the daughter through the Floating Flower Market. When we traveled to London, everyone went on a romp through Hyde Park. After arrival in Paris, we trekked to the Jardin des Tuileries. It's officially tradition.

I'd spent the taxi ride from Charles de Gaulle craning around looking at the people and the buildings and the cars. Suddenly, after traveling a broad avenue, and passing the Palais Garnier, we were at our hotel, small, charming, seeming so Parisian with red geraniums in window boxes. The sun briefly smiled on us when we got to the hotel but by the time we were checked in and washed up, the rain clouds had moved in. I felt filthy and travel-stained, ill-dressed and exhausted, ungainly and unsophisticated, but I knotted my scarf around my neck in preparation for heading out the door, hoping I looked more European than turista. As we walked down the Avenue de l'Opéra, the sky became ever more threatening. Still, I loitered, looking in the shop windows which were advertising the summer sales as people dodged around me. Panhandlers held out cups as we passed, and bits of litter danced down the street in the wind. It started raining right as we arrived at the Louvre.

No matter. It was Paris. There was IM Pei's pyramid, the Seine was just over that way. You are Here.

The daughter was hungry (of course), and I spotted a patisserie in a kiosk at the edge of the gardens. I dug in my bag for some euros, and asked her sotto voce what she wanted. She pointed. I closed my eyes for a moment (which underscored just how tired I really was), thought up some words, went up to the register and ripped out a request for pain au chocolat in French.

I don't, as I've frequently pointed out, speak French. I can read it reasonably well, and I can understand at least some of what's said to me, but I have a horror of trying to actually speak it. And when I'm in a place where I have a working knowledge of the language but am far from fluent, my brain unfortunately switches into "foreign language" mode and I have been known to create horrifying mashups of whatever words come to hand. So it could be German-Russian-Danish or French-Spanish-English. It's completely unintentional, and I've gotten to the point where it almost doesn't embarrass me anymore. The reaction of my listeners can be pretty hilarious, however.

So there I was, standing in the Tuileries, obtaining pain au chocolat in French. As I completed the transaction, down to exchanging the final "merci" with the nice girl behind the counter, lightning flashed, illuminating the cloud-dark afternoon. Everyone scurried for shelter.

The bang overhead was tremendous. The rain shower turned to heavy pelting drops.

"I think we should go back to the hotel," said the son nervously. The spouse swiftly agreed while the daughter nibbled at her snack.

I laughed. Just laughed. There I was standing in Paris, under a tree in a thunderstorm, a gigantic Ferris wheel turning slowly in front of me. I was tired and mussed and damp, but I was in Paris.

The Eiffel Tower was shrouded in fog, and the Arc d'Triomphe was barely visible in the downpour.

You are Here.

Go listen to some good music: "Time Flies" from the album The Incident by Porcupine Tree.

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