Pastries, Painters, and a Prince

pastries, painters, and a prince.

Go to Google, and ask it to list the most romantic cities in the World. Betcha Paris makes the top five every time. Heck I’d be surprised if it didn’t make the top three – and if it didn’t it’s probably due to an editorial bias. So if I were to make a top five most romantic cities in the world, where do you think Paris would fall? Top three? Or would it duke it out for number one?

I would like to state, for the record, that everyone should experience a first class train ride from Amsterdam to Paris – and Paris to Geneva as well but that’s a story for another time. One of the most remarkable sights to see takes place right near Brussels. An almost mile long stretch of granite walls with the most wonderful graffiti I’ve ever seen lines the tracks of the train. It’s very difficult for me to describe this mural of sorts, though I guess the first place to start would be with the word graffiti. When I think about that wall I know it’s graffiti, but that word seems so vulgar and demeaning. It’s art, street art yes, but art nonetheless – and it captivated me.

How many countless hours went into that mural? How much paint, and how many people worked on it? Was it improvised and painted on the spot – a free flowing thought that travelled down to the fingers and out the nozzle of a spray can – or was it meticulously planned? Was it done in the darkness of night as to not get caught, or did these mavericks risk reprimands during the day to defy public norms and give birth to their dreams? Sadly, my bewilderment and awe of the sudden appearance of such beautiful and elaborate art kept me transfixed and unable to pick up my camera. I guess I’ll just have to go back and see it again sometime.

As the train pulled into Paris De Nord that there was a small (big) part of me that wanted to take a taxi straight to the Eiffel tower, and while I know I was about 4 miles away from it, the moment I made it to the surface I craned my head around desperate to spot it. I took two trains to the northeastern side of Paris, about three blocks from Notre Dome. My first experience with AirBNB awaited, and I had no clue what to expect. I wonder if I would have felt any fear at all if I wasn’t so exhausted, sweat drenched, and sore, from lugging around a heavy backpack in 90+ degree heat. Parisian nights certainly weren’t any colder, mind you. Maybe it had more to do with how much I trusted complete strangers not to harvest my organs, or it could just be flat out naivety and inexperience.

One door code and five flights of stairs later, a vault like door swung open and revealed a man, dark haired, wide smiled and no older than me – at least in appearance. I stepped across the threshold and into the walkway of style and design magazine. Carefully considered pieces of photography were hanging from the wall in a variety of sizes and frames. To the right, a kitchen accented in red. A framed cover of an old Batman comic and Superman comic hung adjacent to each other across the kitchen. A large vase held, what I could only guess would be, a hundred wine corks. And of course, an espresso machine.

Out of the master bed room, that was connected to the kitchen by a door, walked the other resident. Clean shaven, and a little shorter than Mike, Jonny quickly introduced himself. After setting my bag down, I turned to shake the hand of Mike as he closed the door before introducing myself to both of them. Though as I started to recant my day, a third member of the household greeted me with soft licks to my calves. A beautiful honey brown and cream colored cocker spaniel was below me. Jonny introduced her to me before pulling her away; Penelope. Jonny poured me some Pellegrino and I took a much needed seat at the corner table; I finally arrived at Chamber au Coeur du Marais.

Though it was approaching midnight and both had to work the next morning, we spent the better part of an hour talking about my trip and where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. I showed them some of my footnotes and musings, as well as flicked the display of my camera over so they could see some of the pictures I’ve taken thus far. Mike wanted to know if I had plans for my time in Paris, and I told him I did.

“The most important thing for me to see is the Louvre. I have a couple other small places I want to see, and of course there’s the Eiffel.” I refilled my glass, this time trying to sip it slowly instead of a large gulp that drained the first cup. Paris was already as warm as when I left Amsterdam, and it was the dead of night.

Mike went in the other room and came back with a few maps. A smaller city map that covered the part of Paris we were in, and a larger one that allowed you to see the overall city. Mike circled where we were and then circled The Louvre and the tower. We were about 5 kilometers to the tower. Which would make a great morning run if I could get up early enough to beat the heat. The Louvre was about halfway in-between. I pulled out my metro map and laid it side by side with the overview map so I could see the stations that ran through Paris. There was a metro practically everywhere I wanted to go, but I figured I’d walk as much as I can so I could see Paris instead of venture under it.

Realizing I hadn’t unpacked and even had a chance to settle, Mike and Jonny showed me to my room. Passing through a glass-paned door, we entered the living room. A large flat screen television was mounted to the exposed brick wall in front of us, and to the right more photo frames arranged in a perfect mix of sizes and images of Paris. Slightly burnt bulbs hung from the ceiling and in front of a black leather sofa with several skulls sitting on shelves to the right of it. In the far left side of the room was the door that lead to the guest bedroom.

Pristine in the way you’d expect a high end hotel room to be; a glass and a bottle of water sat on the desk besides a pad of paper and pen. A little golden Eiffel Tower keychain was carefully placed next to an individually wrapped piece of nougat both upon a bright red hand and bath towel. Books about Paris, French to English Translation Dictionary, and Modern art books sat atop the bookshelf next to the bed. Without any hesitation or care I dropped my bag onto the floor and sat the camera down on the desk.

After finishing giving me the lay of the land, Mike and Jonny were off to sleep as they had work the next day. Noticing I had yet to stop sweating I figured a shower was long overdue, as was catching up on some writing. First things first; I opened the windows and peered out into the Parisian sky. Clear with a slight dusting of bright twinkling stars, the night’s sky had the slightest tint of orange from the light pollution of this magnificent city. How many people were looking up at this same sky, at this exact same moment?

What came first? Noticing the heat of the day or the obstruction of light in my eyes? Vision blurred and mind still groggily, I crookedly put my glasses on my face and stood up next to my bed. I was right in front of the first of two windows, wearing only my black boxers, when a cat call like whistle echoed from outside. Looking to my right, in horror, was a girl not too much younger than me. Leaning out her window and taking a long drag on her cigarette, she was clearly trying to start her morning with a quick smoke. Little did she know she’d also be getting a bit of a show from the floor below her. I dropped to the floor as if bullets were ricocheting through the window and crawl to the space between the two windows so I could sit with my back against the wall.

She giggled and called out to me in French. Not a hope or translator in sight, I let out a voice-cracking, “Good Morning” to my not so distant admirer. I had hoped to meet a Parisian girl while I was here, I just didn’t expect her to catch me with my pants down – literally.

Her words curled back in a thick French accent, “Are our American?”

“Yes, I’m visiting from California.” I politely voiced back, tilting my head just slightly as to make sure I project out the window.

“Oooh welcome to Paris, American.” She giggled again. The sound of windows closing followed shortly behind her giggles. Sighing deeply in relief, I crawled past the remaining window frame before I decided to inch my way up the wall near the door.

I knew I heard the distinct sound of the window closing, but I didn’t want to take any chances. Inching my head as close as I could to the window, and counting to three, I quickly reached across to pull the window shut. “One down,” I thought. Not a moment later I had the other one closed.

Thanks to my wonderful hosts I had a fan pointed at my bed the entire time I slept, full blast and wonderful. However, I was now behind the fan, and behind a closed window that had the sun berating right on it. It wasn’t a quarter past nine in the morning and I could feel the sweat trickle down my temple. I knew it was going to be one of those days. And I really dislike those days.

When I finished showering and changing I scooped up my house key, tested to make sure I knew how to open the vault door, and headed off into Paris. The street outside was busy with people coming and going. Many seemed to be tourists, but others were clearly Parisians; talking in quick French. I remember Jonny instructing me to eat breakfast to the left of the apartment as I came out on the street. So I headed that direction, doing my best to walk in the shade.

Now my mind was clearly set on eating nothing but pastries, croissants actually, the entire time I was in Paris, but after walking fifteen minutes I struggled to find anything but a kebob shop, and a little cafe. Maybe I wasn’t looking correctly, or maybe I was just too hungry. Either way I ended up with sitting at a table outside the cafe. After a polite ‘bonjour’ from my server, I ordered some roasted duck and a tiramisu; but I asked he brought the tiramisu first. Sure it isn’t French, but it is one of my all time favorite desserts in the world – and since I no longer drink coffee, I savored the flavors of it even more so.

This corner cafe gave me ample time and opportunities to watch people of all sorts pass me by. One man, in particular, I can recall as clear as the day light currently shining through my window. Bright pink shorts that went above his knees, with a blue stripped tank-top and the most meticulously trimmed beard. His hair was silver and white, buzzed on both sides almost to the middle where it was then combed up into a very stylized undercut. Sitting on top of his Carmel-toned face were round, heavy-rimmed, glasses. He strode down the street with purpose, and best of all, no one seemed to mind or notice.

It was getting hotter. How? I really don’t know. When I left I decided to head back to the apartment and get my camera, change my shirt (already), and get going. I had a lot to see today – hopefully. Just south of the apartment was my first stop, Notre Dame. Now I can’t tell you the whole history of the church, but as Disney lead me to believe, at one time or another a hunchback lived here, as well as some gypsies. The square outside the church was filled with tourists, and street peddlers trying to sell selifie sticks. Worst of all was a line to get in the church; one-hundred yards out the door, stretched across the square.

For what it was worth, I did notice it was moving, just very slowly. So back of the line I went, as I knew my mom wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if I didn’t see another one of the thousands of churches in Europe. And there we stood, in the heat and the glory. About twenty minutes, and 20 ounces of sweat later, we finally made it into the church which was surprisingly cooler. The inside of the church was huge, and by huge I mean I am pretty sure one of the other churches I visited on my way to Paris could have fit in here. I’ll admit, it was impressive. Impressive knowing it took years to build without modern technology available, and also that it has survived so much.

Near the back of the church were small sections, or rooms, that allowed people to pray. Candles lit the rooms and lined the walls, with smaller but as magnificent painted glass panes depicting Christ or the Holy Mother in each room. I stood quietly by the entrance of one, and I heard silent weeping from within. An older woman, dressed in black and deep blues, sat kneeling in front of a room. I looked up into the compassionate face of the savior, his expression not changing, but even I could feel the heat radiating from the glass.

I thought about why she could be crying. Wondering if her spirit was moved to tears or that her heart was breaking. Wondering if her thoughts and prayers are heard any more than my own. Wondering if we’re all going to be okay or not in this life. I wanted to say something, or offer her something, but I knew I couldn’t. That’s the thing about faith, we can all believe in something, but in the end it comes down to what we find in our own hearts. I can give her words, prayers, and consideration, but it’s up to each of us to let the light in – or embrace the darkness. I closed my eyes and bowed my head, and instead of saying a little prayer for me – I said one for her. As everyone passed by this room without a care, cameras out to capture photos of things they’ll forget anyways, I stopped and saw a little bit of humanity outside of my own.

I looked at my watch, and saw it nearing noon. It was time to get going – but I wasn’t ready to stop at the Louvre just yet. South of Notre Dame, near the river, was a very old bookstore; The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. I only just remembered that this important bookstore was in town, though I didn’t look up its history or importance, only that I knew as a devout lover of books and knowledge, I had to make a pilgrimage to it and buy a book. Passing by several streets, crossing a small bridge over the river, and weaving through a small grassy park that had several groups of young people sitting out on picnics with loafs of bread and sparkling water, I made it to the old bookshop.

Engraved on a wood nameplate hanging in front of the store was “Shakespeare and Co.” – people were coming in and out, but mostly out. The sign on the door indicated why: no air condition, no air circulation. As I pushed my way into the little shop, I felt as if I was walking into an oven. It was, however possible, hotter in here than outside. Yet there was very little room to walk around as there were so many people moving through the store and buying books.

The rooms were small, and books lined shelves all around. It had the distinct feeling of Olivander’s wand shop. “The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter,” Olivander once said. “Maybe a book will choose me, but what book?” I thought. Right in front of me, On The Road by Jack Kerouac sat next to a few books by William Burroughs. A section later brought me to T.S. Eliot, and finally some works of Shakespeare. “Too obvious a choice,” I told myself. I knew it had to be something special, something small too as I didn’t have a pack.

In the back of the store was a staircase, and as I saw people going up it I knew it was fine to go up. A sign indicated that the books upstairs were for reading, and at one-time people used to stay here while on their travels occasionally. An engraving over an archway read “BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE.” A little hole in the wall held an old typewriter with bits of paper hanging from every inch of the hole; receipts, tear-offs, gum wrappers -all with names and hearts and dates written on them. I sat down. I wish I could leave something among the hundreds of unknowns, something to say I was here, but I didn’t need to leave anything physical behind. After all, who would see it? More so, who would care?

I placed my fingers on the keys of the typewriter, and just felt the ridges of the keys under my fingertips. I closed my eyes and just let my fingers move across the rows, typing a sentence without pressing the keys, writing words without ink to paper. “I will always know, and I will always remember.” As my finger found that last key I opened my eyes. A jagged and crumpled corner of a receipt hung on the wall in front of me, with a little heart on it it read “faith.”

The room just past the hole was a large opening, a sign detailed that this collection of books was for reading and not for sale, and on a sofa to the right a large white-furred cat laid sprawled out and sleeping. Either too asleep to notice, or too cat to care about all the people coming into her home, I smiled. Cats are funny like that. They seem to understand life, I guess. Understand that they should just be, because why should they be anything else? Or as my brother would put it, “cat’s gonna cat.”

A young woman sat with an electronic tablet and stylus and was drawing a sketch of the desk by the windowpane; it was really good – or for what I could see of it. I didn’t want to creep her out or break her focus, so I decided to move on back toward the stairwell and out to the front of the store. Still no book to settle on, and running out of moisture to sweat, I scooped up a collection of poems by E.E. Cummings and got in line. Wouldn’t you know it, right before I got to the counter, something else finally called out to me. Small, with a blue cover and gold-edged pages, I traded out Cummings for it, made my purchase, and left.

The Louvre was a twenty-minute walk away, and while I did have a metro pass, I didn’t want to spend any time under Paris. There was too much to see and not enough time to see it all. Baring the heat, I walked alongside the river towards The Louvre. Parisians and tourists alike were out, and on several occasions I passed buildings that had to have some sort of historical or tourism appeal, as there were queues to get in them. I’m sure they offered something of value, though indiscernible to me. That’s the thing with doing anything last minute, you lose whatever opportunities proper planning would have provided.

Disclaimer: The Louvre is big – really, really big. I only knew of The Louvre, through television and Dan Brown books, I don’t think I was prepared for what I had found.

When I finally made it into the courtyard of The Louvre and was able to see the magnificent glass pyramid at the center, I was already drenched in sweat – though undeterred at now playing tourist and trying to get someone to take my picture with the pyramid. After spending some time circling the courtyard trying to find the entrance to the museum, I noticed that there was a line in front of the pyramid. I was looking for a door, what I should have been looking for were some stairs. The entrance to The Louvre is actually under the pyramid! This fact led to two subsequent thoughts; some part of The Louvre is entirely underground, and that it has to be at least a little cooler down there than it is up here since heat rises.

Fun fact, when you get under the pyramid you’re only going to find yourself more confused, as you now have four different directions to enter the actual museum. Best of all, you can pay for an electronic guide that runs on a Nintendo DS, which is a two-sided follow-up to the Gameboy. This device also acted as a digital map that would route me to whatever I wanted to see. I checked the clock and saw I had at plenty of time before the museum, and the better part of Paris, closed for the day. Spinning in a circle with hordes of other tourists around me, I picked a direction at random and started out. There was a familiarity not unlike going to Disneyland, or another amusement park, for the first time. You know you’re going to see a lot of things that you’ll find interesting no matter what direction you choose.

I came first to the Islamic collection, which welcomed me with a very cool breeze of air condition as I entered. Surprisingly the museum was relatively tourist-free as I could only guess was due to most people wanting to see Da Vinci and other classics over rocks and pottery from the middle-east. I had seen my fair share of museums already this trip, but I tried to keep an open mind. All of this was history of our humanity, and in that regard it still deserves respect. Technology has taken some of the grandeur out of wood carved doors, or eloquently and geometrically designed rugs. Not only did people make these things, probably by hand, but they were created hundreds of years before us and the fact that they are still intact to some degree has to accredit the creator to some degree.

Seeing all of it was also poignant. Much of the middle east is, and has been, in constant chaos from region to region over the years. Most recently with ISIS, who have taken it upon themselves to raid and destroy thousands of priceless artifacts on their conquest, jihad, whatever. I remember standing in front of a scimitar thinking about this, thinking about the fact that here in Paris are all these items that belong to all these other nations as part of their natural heritage, yet cannot be trusted to be protected in their originating states.

Then another thought came into my mind: at what point does the history of a nation become apart of the history of our collective humanity? At what point do we not take responsibility as a people for preserving our past instead of trying to lay claim to artifacts as if they are trophies to be collected. Sure, for many of these countries tourism is a measurable percentage of their GDP. How much does The Louvre alone bring each year in tourism? There is most definitely value in having the largest collection of historical items in the world, but what is more valuable? Their preservation in a stable sovereignty or the ticket price you can charge for the attraction?

From the museum of Islam, I moved on to an enclosed and covered courtyard filled with giant marble statues. I sat for a while to drink some water and take in what I was seeing, and also to overhear a conversation. Under one statue sat several children who were being talked to, in English, by what I had to believe was a museum curator. She talked to them in a soft and kind voice, asking them if about the statues and about King Henry. I had to admit the kids were cute in their responses, but so was the girl in her appearance. They filed out and on to the next part of their tour not too long after, she smiled at me while passing. And there I sat again, alone, in a very big, and very crowded place.

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It’s taken me quite some time to process and think about this trip, but Paris in particular. I spent almost seven hours in The Louvre that day. Seven hours in a labyrinth of relics from the past. Paintings, statues, religious artifacts, all collected from around Europe. I spent over thirty minutes lost just trying to find a place to eat. For the record The Louvre has at least three restaurants. When I finally decided I was spent and had seen as much as I could see, I decided to try and find the Rembrandts and Di Vinci pieces. I spent over half an hour trekking across the five stories of The Louvre navigating up and around and through corridors of artifacts to finally make it to the wing that housed these very sought after paintings.

Also for the record, I seemed to have passed by the Mona Lisa room three times before realizing there was a ward I had to turn into to see the painting – and it was as packed with tourists as a small club in San Francisco. Still, I was there. I got to see her. She was bigger than I had previously thought, thinking she was this tiny portrait, but I don’t think it was her that moved me the most that day. It was a piece that I don’t think many people paid attention to as it was just down the hall from The Mona Lisa.

Sitting high on the wall was a painting of what looked like the interior of a church with people gathered around a cross, and there was a look of desperation on some of the faces. It clearly looked like a mother pleading for grace. Praying for a miracle to heal her sick child, a girl very pale and deathly looking sitting slumped over next to her. I guessed the rest of the members were extended family members, or relatives, all with as much concern and hope, but one person in particular stood out. Behind the mother and child, almost disconnected from the group, was someone whom I believed was the father. He stood there in a way that was very unlike the rest of the figures, his body language didn’t show concern but contempt. I could see in his eyes and in his body language the same feeling I have had when looking at myself in the mirror lately… disbelief.

While everyone is praying for a miracle, he sees his child dying and he’s angry, and he’s bitter. He doesn’t want to pray to God, he wants to condemn Him. He wants God to explain to him why she has to suffer, and probably die, he wants God to answer for His crimes of apathy and his distance. I sat across from this painting and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, or the wife, or the teenage girl. She’s dying, clearly, but there is a divide between the mother and father. One has faith that miracles can still happen, the other is resolved in his belief that the universe wants nothing but to see what he loves destroyed.

It was around this time that I realized, it wasn’t just the painting I was feeling. I was feeling the water rising inside me. I was feeling that old feeling of despair and hopelessness. And I realized in my excitement for the day, I had forgotten to take my meds that morning.

Panic rose through my toes and made my hairs stand on end. Do I leave the Louvre and flee back to the apartment? No. I can’t. I triaged the situation and told myself that this is going to get worse if I exhaust myself or allow myself to get hungry. Problem was I was already exhausted and was starting to get a bit peckish. So I quickly got myself to a cafe and ordered a little bit of everything. A baguette sandwich, three croissants, a bottle of water, and a beer. Granted the beer was probably the unwise choice, as it is a natural downer and I am already flailing around at the start of a downward spiral. Still, the cool and crispness of it was refreshing, and I made sure to take my time there to rest – I knew I was done with The Louvre this trip, but there was still plenty to see. I still had one important thing to do.

The heat welcomed me back into its suffocating embrace before I stepped out of the glass pyramid. There was roughly three miles between me and The Eiffel Tower and every minute spent outside was another ounce of water perspired. In the distance a towering shape rose out of the horizon. A small amusement park with a Ferris wheel became visible the further west I walked. Just before the Ferris wheel was a clearing that housed a large fountain, the misted water tempted passersby to jump in, while others sat around on blankets and lawn chairs napping and taking in the sun. It was a strange sight to find people not just baring the heat, but enjoying it.

At ten euros a trip around, the Ferris wheel would take patrons just high enough up to see out toward the tower and parts of southern Paris, and like many people before me, I got excited as the tower came into view. Seeing the tower at any distance is such a magnificent sight. Just like spotting the George Washington Monument once you cross over the George Washington Bridge in Washington, D.C. It excites you. Stirs wonder and awe up to the surface of your skin and out through your hairs leaving them standing on end.

When you finally get to The Eiffel Tower you’re going to be in for a surprise. It’s tall. It’s really tall. I mean, it is a tower after all, but somehow pictures don’t really do it justice. People were moving in many directions, some to get in line to go up the tower, others sitting on the grassy knoll with friends; enjoying a bottle of wine while talking amongst themselves. An open bench presented itself as an open invitation to take a seat; I’ve done enough walking for a day, and I had something special planned.

Reaching into the little bag I’ve been carrying for most of the day, I pulled out a small copy of The Little Prince. Everything happens for a reason. I believe that to the depths of my convictions. It’s just that there are plenty of things that happen that I just don’t understand, and it’s not for lack of trying. I’m not made to understand this life, just to live it, and to obey God. It’s for these reasons why I bought this book, it’s special in its own way but I don’t worship it. I could just feel it calling out to me in the bookshop, in those fleeting moments where you experience more than just time passing by. And so I began to read a book I hadn’t read in over two decades.

If you’ve never read The Little Prince, I encourage you to pick up a copy and then to pick one up for your friends. The book is relatively short, as I finished it while sitting in the shadows of the tower, but it shouldn’t take away from it’s value and importance. There are so many passages worth quoting, but many are worth rereading from time to time as to keep you thinking about the importance of life.

Among some great parts, near the very end did I see the beginning chances for hope to grow in my life.

“In one of those stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend…I shall not leave you.”

I would be lying if I said that it didn’t draw the tiniest amount of water from my eyes from time to time, but the real waterworks showed up when I read through chapter 21; when the Little Prince met the fox.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The nature of love is simple. The time we waste freely in getting to know others, finding out what they like, moving very slowly with them through hours and days, developing friendship and admiration. This is the very matter that feeds and creates love. This wasted time is what makes other people important. Because it is such a sacrifice to spend time, even today when everything comes at you a million miles a minute. Slowing down and taking time, wasting time, will make a world of difference in a relationship.

And for the past two years I’ve forgotten this. I was moving too fast, trying to outrun pain and constantly receiving pleasure to stop and consider the fact that I wasn’t wasting time, just spending it at my discretion; making my life all about racing and never having to think. Boy did that turn out well for me in the end.

When I finished the book the sun was almost gone; I checked the time and couldn’t believe that it was almost ten at night. It’s an odd experience chasing the light until your typical bed time. Made me wonder what life would be like in California if we had similar summers. As the crowds began to dissipate back to the homes and hotels they came, I headed to the closest metro; I’ve had enough walking for one day. When I got back to the flat my hosts had returned home from work. We talked about Paris for a bit, but it was already quite late and I had yet to eat dinner, Mike mentioned he was going to be home tomorrow and wanted to take me out to explore the neighborhood. “Fantastic.” I said, knowing I still had so many questions about Paris that only a local could ask. That and being a natural storyteller had left me with plenty of questions about him and Jonny and their own story. I bid them adieu and took off for the end of my night. Maybe I could find a decent meal before turning in, or at least a kebob.

Europe is most definitely not America. On one hand, most of the populous seems happy –or at least happier than people back in the States. There also seems to be a lot laxer laws on drinking in public; which is nice if you’re into throwing back a few in the middle of the day –or during one of Europe’s hottest weeks on historical record. Then you also have the whole readily available healthcare and decent public education. Above all of these admirable societal traits is the apparent work-life balance. Shops aren’t open around the clock, seven days a week. Places close, people go home. Then they go out, they laugh and smile, they have relationships with friends and family. In effect, Europeans actually live a life that in some way, shape, or form, embodies what we were vaguely led on to believe life would hold for us when we were still school children. Mild disdain at America’s status quo? You betcha.

However, it was nearing midnight hours and I had somehow neglected the necessary daily ritual of eating, I yearned to find some familiar capitalistic dogma in this socialized state of well wishers and happy-go-lucky households. Thank goodness Paris is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Thank goodness for restaurant owners looking to make a late night buck.

Leaving the apartment, I decided to hit the streets in search for something palatable. Sure I could choke down a kebob or two, but I really wanted to sit down and have a meal actually cooked and not just sliced off a roasted chunk of meat and thrown on bread with some toppings. Curiously the neighborhood around the apartment changed dramatically as the sun finally went down. Doors that were closed earlier in the day were now open, lights and sounds poured out into the street where a trickle of men loitered around in line out front. This wasn’t a single occurrence either, three more clubs and bars within a block of each other shared the same disproportionate number of male patrons to females.

Wearing shorts and a V-neck t-shirt, I had unknowingly attracted eyes of many male passerby, but not in a familiar fashion. When it became clear that I was being looked at, and not just seen, I readjusted my own vision of the neighborhood I was in.  And then it became abundantly clear – I was in Paris’s version of The Castro.

I mean, it made sense, didn’t it? An extremely nice part of the city where many interesting and well groomed characters paraded-not literally- through the streets during the day. Guest in an apartment fastidiously decorated in every room, down to the smallest detail, by a couple of guys (literally). So I’m playing at the stereotype card, so what – the shoe fits, and in this case Cinderella isn’t so much a princess as a guy dressed in drag, arguing quite animatedly with a bouncer who was too busy trying to get his cigarette lit to pay any attention to him (her?).

Past the smoke-filled doorways and neon signs of the bars and clubs of the Parisian Castro, I twisted my way down side streets into the courtyard of a hotel that had a bar still opened. As I read the menu attached to the street sign a server indicated that they were still serving and I was welcome to sit anywhere I’d like. Since the temperature was finally in the double digits -barely- I took a seat outside. Not too long later I found myself with a large bottle of water, a French onion soup, a huge steak, and a (large) glass of a red Bordeaux.

People watching, even at midnight, is a great pastime. It should be its own channel. There’s a good start-up idea for you. High quality web-cams setup in popular city streets for people to log into from their phones to watch people walk by. Just give me five-percent for the idea if you run with it.

After the steak was finished, the server told me to try the apple tart -a French take on the apple pie. I was in no hurry and neither was he, so I told him to bring it by a bit later since I wanted to sit back and ruminate with the wine. I could feel the meat and wine coarse through me; warming me, filling me, and making me quite aware of my own exhaustion. Sitting back in my seat, facing the walkway, I held my glass in hand and swirled the remainder of the wine. The people were far and few by now, the city seems to finally sleep.

One small group of people my age, two girls and three guys, turned the corner and chatted loudly as they made their way back towards the Parisian Castro. One girl, with straight brown hair that fell over her shoulders, hung to the back of her group and was closest to me. Her black heels clicked on the cobblestones of the walkway and were audible even through the sounds of her chattering friends. She noticed me people watching, and instinctively I raised my glass towards her and gave her the slightest nod. She smiled, looked down, and kept walking. As I sipped the remainder of the wine I could have sworn I caught her give me one last glance before her party, and her little black dress, was swept behind the corner they turned on.

Cest la vie, an American boy alone on a Parisian night. And all the pretty girls in all the world are completely oblivious of me. Not that they should be concerned with such a trivial person, I just never would have imagined I’d be in this city alone. That was never my plan, this was never my intention. In a way that could be seen as the subtitle of life, “Life: Never as Intended.” Jesus may have known he’d be here only a short time, that he was here to redeem us and convince us of the love of his father and the life ever after, but I don’t think he truly intended to die on the cross. After all, he did cry out “Father, why have you forsaken me?”

After finishing his fourth smoke since I sat down, my server brought out the biggest slice of apple tart I’ve ever seen at a restraint, and garnished on top was a generous serving of, what I found out was, crème fraise. I don’t know if I was impressed or appalled from the lack of vanilla ice cream being served with pie, but I ate it nonetheless and I was satisfied. It was a tart and bitter pairing compared to warm and sweet. I left a more than generous tip, picked myself up and carried on home.

Close to two in the morning I descended into bed. Not remembering the last time I’ve had a day that felt this long, sleep took me quickly and I drifted into the nothingness that bore this strange and wonderful day.

That all-too-familiar heat brought me back to consciousness before the new-day’s light hit my eyes. I was in no rush this morning as I did everything I set out to do the day before. Anything today could bring would be just a gift; that little something extra. Groggily I stumbled into the kitchen, laptop in hand, and sat at the table and started that long transfer of thoughts to typed words from the previous days.

Mike came out of the bedroom an hour later and we struck up a conversation about what I got up to the day before and what was left to do before my train ride out.

“Honestly, I don’t have anything planned. I did everything I came to do.”

“Well how about food? I have to walk Penelope; I can show you the neighborhood.”

Well, I couldn’t pass up the chance to walk a dog that cute. I closed my laptop and went to go lace up my shoes. We headed out the door and down the street. The bars and clubs were sealed up, the neighborhood transformed back into it’s other form -an attractive, colorful, and lively quarter of Paris.

Before we got too far Mike pulled me into a bakery that I had to have passed twice already without noticing it. Indicating to a sign out front, he explained that this bakery was rated to have the best baguettes in all of Paris for 2015. Victory. I loaded up with three croissants, one chocolate one, and a baguette sandwich. Carbs be damned, I’m in Paris.

Our small talk included how he came to live in Paris, and how long he’s lived with Jonny. Mike said he was originally from a small town up near Switzerland and that he’s been here with Jonny for almost five years now. He knew I was curious about the area, and he explained that the LGBT community as well as the Jewish community were sort of shunned into this quarter of Paris.

“Jewish community?” I knew I spoke too soon. We turned a corner and were almost face to face with some orthodox Jewish men. The local shops changed to kosher shops and delis selling falafel. Talk about a juxtaposition.

Mike explained that while these two communities were ostracized to this specific area, the communities began to flourish over the years. Now the property values are so high due to the quality of the community and how many tourists are attracted to this area, that the community is under pressure from the migration of more affluent Parisians who are trying to buy and develop in the community -thus pushing out the very people that were pushed here to begin with.

An hour or so passed before we made our way back to the apartment. Mike had some errands to run, and I wanted to write. I’d see him and Jonny only one more time before leaving for the train station.

It was nice to be alone and stationary, even if it was only for a brief period of time. Penelope snored in the corner of the kitchen, people could be heard out of the open window and the slightest breeze danced with the curtains. I put on Beth/Rest for the hundredth time – I don’t know what it is about that song but it seems to get the magic flowing – and started to write what I could about Amsterdam.

I didn’t look at the time until the door finally opened and Jonny came home. He greeted me before returning to his room to change. Moments later he was in the kitchen, pouring himself some Pellegrino and lighting a cigarette by the open window. Jonny asked about my day in Paris this morning, I told him I was comfortably spending it as a recluse – catching up on writing and resting. Penelope still didn’t seem interested in moving from her spot in the corner, our walk in the heat must have been too much for her. When Mike came home we decided to go on one last walk to get some more pastries (for the road, I swear), before I had to make it to the metro. Closing time was coming, and I wasn’t about to miss my train.

We had only just made it back in time before I had to scoop up my bag and head to the metro. I gave each of them a hug, and promised to send a pair of my travelling wine glasses in a care package once I get back to the states. Making new friends and saying good-bye to them at the same time is a bittersweet thing. On one hand life is beautiful and wonderful; grateful for these random collisions of kindness. On the other hand, you’re sad to let them go back to where they came; the unknown wonders of our world and universe. Maybe our paths would cross again, I hope it will. If anything to share with them my stories -whatever chapters that may become of my life.

I won’t say I gracefully made it to my train in a timely fashion. I was late, sprinting madly because I had somehow lost my metro ticket, and covered in sweat because I was once again lugging 50 pounds of stuff with me. In fact, I straight up missed my train. How, well other than being late, I don’t know. My watch said I was there on time, but apparently me on time and the train on time are two different things. It would be an hour before the next train would arrive, but thankfully I’d be on it.

From leaving the apartment, to the train station, to the train ride; there was no escape from the heat. It was hot the entire time to Geneva. The train lacked a noticeable amount of circulating air. It was stagnant and stifling but I was doing my best to calm my mind so I could take in the sights of the French country-side. And the French country-side, oddly enough, looked a lot like California. Miles and miles of golden hills with sprawling trees dotting the ridges and spaces in-between. Except the glimmer of gold wasn’t weeds, but miles of wheat.

Ascending into the mountains, passing small towns sitting next to lakes, the sun drifted and dipped into the west as my train roared east seeking asylum from the sun and the day in another strange-land that will soon become known. I wanted to see Paris behind me as much as I wanted to see the past fade-away, but just like yesterday was unknown to me a day earlier, so is the mysteries and the wonder of tomorrow. I’ll leave little pieces of my heart in all these days that pass, and take some memories of new, good, things to fill those places. Don Miller wrote, “I asked God to help me understand the story of the forest and what it means to be a tree in that story.” I didn’t get that sentence for a few days, but eventually it clicked.

It’s not about me more than it is about God. I am this small, indiscernible thing put into something much bigger than myself. While I’m an important and integral part to a greater whole, it’s the whole that matters. This whole world of people. Hostile, quarrelsome, disputatious, but kind, compassionate, and generous. All colliding with each other as we try to sort ourselves out and find some meaning out of all this motion. Finding our place in this forest, and ultimately the forest’s story. And these collisions of new and wonderful things within me, within each new day, with strange people in stranger lands, gives me some hope.

Hope that I’m playing a part in a bigger story, or rather that I’ve been warming the bench just before going up to bat. After all, even if I only make it out onto the far left field of life – I’m still playing in the game. And I think I’m learning that matters most. Swinging the bat, no matter the pitch, staying in the game. Maybe God is a fan of baseball. Maybe not. Maybe he’s a fan of poor metaphors.

 

Love, Always.

lovemehd

Song On My Mind:

Local Natives – Who Knows Who Cares

and on Spotify:

2018-06-24T18:21:10+00:00

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