Provence in January ?

It is a cold, sleet driven evening in Paris.  I have slipped away to my cozy Le Pure Café for a café crème and time with my paper and pen. I look out the window and see figures bent forward hidden behind umbrellas as they push up the street toward the warmth of home. Like Proust with his madeline moment, I am reminded of another January when howling winds whirled my husband Omega Man and me into an adventure of time lost and time found.

OM and I prefer the road less traveled which applies to seasons as well as locations. Therefore, one finds us where least expected.

Who goes to Provence in January, one might ask? The answer: not the fainthearted. Certainly, one is guaranteed streets and monuments empty of tourists, but, having read of the Mistral only in books, the shock of its fierceness belied our imagination.   The mistral and snow greeted us, yes, but so also did full days of sun shining down on sleepy hilltop villages, casting its dramatic shadows over soaring monuments, all empty of tourists…with the exception of two solo travelers, OM and me.

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Uzès or was it Gordes?  Each village, a dream of past time.

My mind is a whirl of impressions with synapses of connectivity that send me down a 2000 year time spiral to the sound of Roman conquerors cheering in the Nîmes’ arena, comfortable in the belief of an undefeated Pax Romana

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only to see its death around 476 AD with barbarians knocking on the door. Enter Vandals, Visigoths, Huns, Ostrogoths…man, who stood a chance against those heathen hordes? Rome becomes a vague memory that inspires 8th century Charlemagne to try for the dream of Rome again. He battles across central Europe laying siege to Provencal strongholds before fading back up to the north. A jump in time and the door opens onto the 10th century of abbey building, that quiet meditative world of whispering benedictine monks buried over texts in abbey’s like the beautiful Abbey de Montmajour.

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Abbaye de Montmajour

With a slight side step, the Abbey fades away, and in its place arrives the political intrigues of 14th century Avignon pope palatial building. In 1305 an Archbishop of Bordeaux becomes Pope. Finding fractious barons of Rome intolerable, or so he believed, he moves the papacy to Avignon.   When St. Catherine advises Pope Gregory some 70 or 80 years later to return the papal center to Rome, it is met with little enthusiasm by the powerful cardinals as they have built sumptuous palaces along the Côtes de Rhône and are quite happy in Avignon, thank you very much.   I wonder what was in it for St. Catherine and what her fatal power over Pope Gregory might have been? Well, the return to Rome happens, and the great Schism begins, a pope in Rome and the anti-pope in Avignon.   That contretemps is barely put to rest when the 16th century bears witness to the bloody religious wars between French Protestants (Huguenots…inspired by writings of Calvin (1530’s) and French Catholics (King Louis XIII et Richelieu)). The tearing winds through the ruins of Les Baux testify to the religious fervor of that time that led to great massacres, each of the other.   The long arm of Napoleon (18th century) reaches down to Provence and restoration of antiquities begins.

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1888 Van Gogh comes to Arles, cuts off half his ear lobe …some say he was driven mad by the mistral…it blows 100 days of the year… and commits himself to The Priory of St. Paul de Mausole à St. Rémy, a mental home.   Here he completes 153 paintings in one year. The olive orchards are here, blown into wild and unimaginable contortions by the mistral. Caught in the wind, blackbirds swirl above in crazy patterns.   And there it is…La nuit étoilée.

OM and I walk back up the path from Van Gogh’s hospital bedroom, back through a Roman Arch and a cenotaph, two of the finest Roman monuments in France. They stand entrance to Glanum, a Gallo-Roman town discovered in 1921 and now being excavated. Van Gogh never knew it was there, buried as it was under his orchard of olive trees.

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We get into our little Citroen C1. Our next stop, the Nîmes train station and a fast train back to Paris.

The year…2013.

My time travel covered 2000 years in a circle no more than 30 kilometers.

I stand up, clear the web of memories from my eyes, put paper and pen back in my bag, bid”Bonne soirée” to Benoît, busy as ever behind the bar, and struggle my way into the windy Paris night.

 

 

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Christmas in Paris

The Christmas Season, always an experience of frenetic energy, this year became moments of captured beauty. Unrelated each to the other, the moments when stitched together make a magnificent quilt that the slightest breeze lifts to reveal the magic below.

Christmas is spiritual, yes, but the Force Majeure of Christmas rests in the hands of the woman of the house. For me, moving from “Star” of the scene to “Background” gives pause; time to see and to reflect. Living three floors above our three grandchildren, Dancing Girl (9), Busy Bee (6), Terminator Man (3) gives Omega Man and me a front row seat to the action of this four-day tour de force. The puppet mistress of the show is Downstairs Mama, our son’s lovely and from this mother-in-law’s point of view, quite perfect wife. My esteem may be relative to the fact that I need do nothing but enjoy every moment without lifting a finger. Is that not the dream of every woman?

December 23:

The arrival of Cape Cod Grand-père signals the beginning of family festivities. With the bonus of two close friends and the private room at Le Chalet Savoyard on rue de Charonne, the Raclette a la tomme de montagne, the Fondue au Roquefort with walnuts, and Pierrade beef presentations are greeted with astounded oohs and aahs. Accompanying wines served with soft voiced Joyeux Noëls are the opening chorus to this wondrous Christmas Spectacle.

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Raclette a la tomme de montagne

December 24:

Christmas Eve Day, for me, begins at the American Cathedral of Paris.  The American Cathedral with its rich history has become a significant part of our Paris life. Being asked to become a “Flower Fairy,” one who helps with cathedral flower arrangements, was a hesitant acceptance on my part, as green thumb have I not. However, there I was for four hours working alongside five other friends as we made bows, hung garlands, made the altar centerpiece, in short, decorated the Cathedral. Who are these women who come together from distant places? They are many; they come and depart from past to the present united by the cathedral bond that stretches from 1886 through WWI, WWII to today; they are Americans living in Paris, ghosts of fingers touching one another through flowers.

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I returned to our pied-à-terre with the aroma of gingerbread drifting down the stairs. Yes, Downstairs Mama with her three children had made not one, but two Gingerbread houses, decorated with swirls, little chimneys, windows and doors. I still am impressed.

Christmas Eve was perfect.  The girls dressed in red velvet dresses, TM in his first suit and tie, grand parents snug in heavy coats and Strategic Man behind the wheel, we began the Christmas drive to the 5:00PM Christmas Eve Caroling service. This is where the City of Lights does its magic the best. Driving down Rue Rivoli and Champs-Élysées is a gift of brilliant twinkling lights illuminating the way. The petite market stalls lined up on each side of Champs-Élysées had children’s noses pressed to the windows, eyes dancing in joy at such wonder.

Then as we made the turn to descend Avenue George V, the tour Eiffel did its hourly dance of lights. Timing could not have been better orchestrated. It was the topping of a magical experience for the three grandchildren.  I think the cathedral placed second until the carols began, then the children joined others on the alter steps for the lesson and the carrying of the Baby Jesus to his crèche for this was the night he was born. The service ended with Silent Night sung in cathedral candlelight.

We returned home from Christmas Eve service to a dining table out of Marie Claire; before us was the complete Christmas feast. Champagne toasts, poppers and sumptuous Christmas Eve dinner, one course following another with accompanying fine wine.

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Christmas Eve Dinner, no oyster soup!

All eyes turned toward me, “How was she going to take it?” You see, this was a Christmas tradition that was from the Downstairs Mama line of tradition, not the tradition line of Upstairs Grand-mère. My family tradition was Oyster Soup on Christmas Eve with the grand Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day. As a child, I detested Oyster soup, so as the Mom, I altered the tradition by changing it to clam chowder. I saw relief ripple down the table as I raised my glass in absolute joy with a toast to the super Cape Cod tradition. I quite like the traditions of Downstairs Mama: having the Christmas dinner Christmas Eve leaves Christmas Day for gifts, champagne, bagels with smoked salmon and no Christmas day cooking.

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December 25:

OM and I stepped downstairs around 8:00AM to aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls and coffee. Santa had arrived, so with coffee and cinnamon roll in hand, we seated ourselves to watch the plan of attack. The charge came with the OK to open your stocking. Like soldiers the assault continued with cries of victory over each package skirmish with ribbons and wrapping paper. Time out was called for Christmas Day Brunch. With smiles of jubilee, all sat at another table of bounty: toasted bagels, creme cheese, smoked salmon, pâté, champagne. This is serious Christmas, and I love it.

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Christmas Supper was prepared by Cape Cod Grand-Père. Out of left-overs, he prepared a delicious chicken fricassee. OM and I are so pleased that our Strategic Man married into a family of chefs.

December 26:

The perfect closure to such days of Christmas festivities is an evening walk around Place Vendôme with Napoleon high on top overlooking his beautiful city.   Window gazing at jewels, jewels, jewels, walking into the beautifully redone Ritz and sitting in a cozy nook of the Hemmingway Bar sipping a Clean Dirty Martini.

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Column d’Austerlitz 1805; now known as Column Vendôme

Does it get any better than this?

Omega Man and the Hood

Life in translation for my husband Omega Man was to be the catalyst that propelled him into the French language, or so I thought. Our contract included a little clause that said I would do the cooking and, basically, all of the apartment’s up keep; he would do the grocery and household shopping. Not ever having stirred, mixed, sautéed, baked or opened a recipe book, he signed with a triumphant flourish of his pen. I covered my lips with a slight snicker and thought to myself,”Gotcha.”

Four years later: Omega Man against all odds has the Hood adept at sign language and often even speaking English.

I stand in amazement at his recognition up and down the streets of our small center of the world. Of course, I had heard some of his stories and randomly noticed street interchanges of nods and smiles, but I never put it all together until recently.  He does the shopping, yes, but more important, he builds relationships. Two days ago, I followed him on his shopping route and then sat with him in our favorite café and listened to him tell me about our Hood.

His shopping path to the bucherie, the boulangerie, and to the fruit and vegetable stand begins with the walk down our little street. On the way he waves to Madame Simone, owner of Les Beaux Mecs, a small next-to-new shop for cool guys. OM has negotiated exchanges with her with much hand signaling and valiant English words that fall hopelessly on Madame’s French ears; however, these exchanges developed into several business transactions. He regularly stops in just to check what she has available as she has a cunning eye for good apparel and enjoys making a deal as much as he. She has turned down some of his offerings, as they did not meet the “cool” standard.   Undaunted, he culls his small wardrobe looking for that item that will set out another round of negotiations.

Two doors down from Les Beaux Mecs, a little stool is propped outside a tiny shop signaling that Madame Nguyen is open for pedicures and manicures. OM had a toe problem that was solved with Madame‘s no nonsense pedicure. Being a bit of a prince, the pedicure is now part of his monthly regime. I listen when he calls to make his appointment. “Madam, Oui? Yes, this is OM. Oui, OM, the American. Oui. When? When? Ah, tomorrow? Oui. Yes, Time? Tomorrow. Oui. Ah, Two o’clock? Ah, Four o’clock. No? Oh, Two o’clock. Oui. Merci. Au revoir.” Obviously, Madame has figured out that 2:00 PM is not Quatorze (4:00PM) in OM-speak but really two o’clock in the afternoon, not two o’clock in the morning.  Economics is a great driver of language communication.

He turns the corner onto Rue Charonne, girds up his loins and faces his toughest conquest in the Hood: The Bucherie.   Behind the counter stand men worthy of the center line of an  American professional football team. Arms like Popeye, cocked heads that broker no quarter, squint eyes that signal “Don’t mess with me,” lips that open with a surly, “Wadda ya want?” (Well, I know this sounds like something out of Dashiell Hammett, but to hear OM tell it, it was exactly like that the first two years.) It took OM that long to break into the group. It began dismally. OM did not speak a word of French; the butchers spoke not a word of English. He would offer them his note to show them the French names of the meat he wanted and how many grams. I hoped this act alone would embarrass him into learning French words. Yes, he was embarrassed, but OM has a way of turning things into something funny, and humor translates without words. I now hear him coming up the stairs chuckling, tossing the perfectly cut chicken, the hamburger, down to the exact gram, onto the counter and saying something like, “You would not believe those guys and what they did.” The break through happened over two years ago when he entered and faced the line up behind the counter ready to painfully make his order, grams printed on his hand, note in his pocket. In a chorus, the four men said, “Halloo Mr. OM, How are YOU today?” OM, startled, took a step back, carefully stepped down and out to the street, turned and looked down the street right, turned and looked down the street left. The butchers were silent wondering what this American was doing. OM turned and stepped back up into the shop bravely facing the four lined up behind the counter. He put a bewildered expression on his face, shrugged his shoulders and pointed to himself indicating the hopeful possibility that they were actually addressing him, the oft ignored American.  The silence broke with four butchers bursting into laughter, nodding “yes”, and OM laughed with them. Since that time, he is a willing partner in their dramatic pantomimes of who will serve him.   With much ducking, dodging and laughter behind the counter when he enters, he points to the lucky one who gets to help that day.

The pâtisserie is a sweet story, no pun intended. OM has a sweet tooth. Without a word of French, he became a familiar patron of the little pastry shop across rue Voltaire. At the end of our first year, OM was pulled aside by the two workers who saw him two to three times a week.   In their hands they held a bag of selected pastries that they knew he liked. In broken English they told him that he was a loyal customer and the gift was a token of their appreciation.   I have watched OM in action over the years, and I know that those visits were also accompanied by gestures and language attempts that brought laughter. He has a way with people.

Somehow OM gets pants altered, buttons sewn back on jackets, shirts tailored without a word of French. The alternation lady adores him. Her shop is little over a door wide with the sewing machine table set six feet from the door. Behind the door to the right are stacks of bags of customer work done. To the left of the door, a curtain that barely covers the body provides the only privacy for taking off and putting on clothes for alteration. In this tight situation, humor is not difficult; peals of laughter spill out onto the street when OM is present.

A few days after the November 2015 violent attack on the popular dining spot Le Belle Equipe, OM found himself in the neighborhood dry cleaning shop situated diagonally across from Le Belle Equipe. Madame Mahmood, a kind Muslim woman who runs the business broke into tears of worry and fear for her family that there would be blowback.  OM listened, held her hand and patted it.  No words needed.

Deciding to write about OM and the Hood was triggered by an incident last week. We were in our favorite café, sitting at the bar top with our books. I was having my usual café crème and OM his usual coffee black. We had been reading for about a half hour when set before me was a cappuccino with a heart in the center;  OM received another coffee black. We looked at Benoît, our server but now friend from our many afternoons with coffee and a book, and expressed our surprise and wanted him to know we had not ordered it. He smiled, and said he was training a new person and she needed the practice. We laughed and said, “Wow, ok!” Perhaps another hour passed; we are known to spend two to two and a half hours reading long after the coffee has disappeared. Swiftly, another café concoction more beautiful than the cappuccino was placed before me and OM another coffee black. Now I am suspicious. This sort of largess is not in the French character. Conversation yes, complimentary cups of designer coffee, no.  Benoît said, “More practice. She is getting good, no?” I laughed and said, “Oui, superior. Mille Mercis”. OM nodded. Benoît seemed very pleased and went back to tending other customers.   I turned to OM and said, “What’s going on?”

“Well,” he said, “It goes something like this.”

Two days earlier,  OM had gone for a walk and then to the café for his coffee. He sat at the bar and was talking with Benoît who does have some ability with the English language. Immediately below the bar on the server side is a trap door that leads to the wine cave below. Benoît is a high wire artist in his ability to descend with lightening steps, sweep up two to three bottles, set them on his platter and return back up the stairs arm raised, wine bottles gracefully balanced atop the platter. However, a misstep occurred and one bottle slid off the tray, crashing to the floor and splintering open. Wine flowed freely. Benoît was distraught. He chastised himself in French and English, started wiping things up all the time worriedly speaking to himself in low whispers. OM leaned over and asked him if the wine bottle that broke was an expensive bottle. “Oh, yes,” said Benoît. It is my responsibility. OM told me that Benoît was beside himself with how to make up for this loss.  OM asked the price range, and Benoît told him.  OM reached in his billfold and asked if this would help. Shocked, Benoît, said “Yes, but No, No, ce n’est pas necessaire. No. No, Merci. OM put it on the counter and said, “Merci for all your service, Benoît.  Bon Journée.

I became aware that I had a story here, and I began to open my eyes and see. I notice the smiles and nodding heads of recognition given to OM as we walk to and from the metro and bus stop. OM loves the Hood and the Hood seems to take kindly to OM.

Paris, Her August Secret

Departing Silicon Valley and waiting at SFO’s Gate A9 to board the plane for my return to Paris, I think of the excitement awaiting me. Rentrée! Le grande Rentrée, unique to Paris, has become over time an imagined reality. Rentrée is the return of Parisians to their city; the empty streets fill with the clamor of beeping horns and snarling traffic temper tantrums; the cafés reopen with patrons spilling out onto sidewalk tables; clinking glasses of wine and hugs of “Ca Va?” (How goes everything?) camouflage the sweet sorrow that summer has ended and fall begins. Children, shouldering weighty backpacks, link arms heading back to school.   In counter balance to this frenetic energy awaiting me eleven hours away, the distance from San Francisco to Paris, I think of those Elysian days of August when Parisians, like lemmings to the sea at the turn of the calendar to August 1, pack their cars, board trains and planes in their rush to the seashore and mountains for les vacances. Paris transforms from a Belle Époque beauty into a dignified, quiet lady whose streets stand empty; her café lights dim and go dark, her buildings become lifeless shells and her Michelin stars close and lock their doors. Left standing at the altar, Paris opens her arms to those who do not leave her. Omega Man and I are among those lucky few who discovered that August days in Paris are the best of the year.

My thoughts drift back to a particular August Friday four years ago, a memory that holds its place in time as though not one second has passed.

A moment of facing time out of place occurred on that particular Friday night. As usual, I had one of my idée fixé and as usual, OM went along. Author Gerald Nicosia had written a book on Jack Kerouac and was going to be at Shakespeare & Co. to speak about Kerouac’s On the Road. I looked forward to hearing him discuss the period and Kerouac’s connection to “The Beats.” I had read Kerouac and well appreciated his influence on young readers, especially rebellious ones. What followed Kerouac were the “Beatniks,” the film “Easy Rider,”Haight-Ashbury Flower Children, anti-Vietnam demonstrations and everything since. So off we went to Shakespeare and Co. for the book discussion.

One emerges from the subterranean world of Paris Metro to the cacophonous intensity of pedestrians moving feverishly in all directions. We were swept into the milling crowd along Rue de la Huchette to Rue de la Bûcherie and abruptly deposited at the entrance of Shakespeare & Co. Working our way to the interior, we were told, “Quel dommage, it is full, no more room.” Perhaps it was my doleful expression or the astonishment on my face that we were being turned away that triggered a lady to come to our rescue. Suddenly, the seas parted and we found ourselves escorted upstairs to the only two remaining seats tucked behind shelves of books. Directly opposite us were five sundry seating possibilities, each occupied by a “very young twenty something,” eager to hear the story of Kerouac.   The small main room where Nicosia held forth on the drama of Kerouac, Burroughs and Cassady held fifteen to eighteen “other young somethings.” The age scale tipped heavily in the opposite direction where OM and I sat! The juxtaposition of these young minds eagerly devouring every word said about “On the Road” and the actualities of that drug-induced trip made it a rather engaging hour. It is a right of passage book, and OM and I got to witness its continued influence here in Paris. We were treated with great deference, as it was Sylvia Whitman, owner of the store, who gave us entry. I can only assume the age differential was noted and added to our status.

After a glass of wine compliments of Shakespeare & Co., we meandered down Bûcherie and Ruchette, visually assaulted by a riot of color, languages, and aromas. It was 7:30p.m. and the evening was yet to begin. We left the 5th Arrondissement, grabbed the metro and were back in our apartment within twenty minutes. After an omelet, French bread and green salad, we grabbed our picnic blanket and headed to the little park at the end of our block for Cinéma en Plein Air. This is literally like going to a drive-in movie, but one is seated on a blanket on the grass surrounded by a sea of Parisians. The movie was the Chinese film In the Mood for Love, by Wong Kar-Wai that won the César for best foreign film in 2001. It was screened on the back of the building abutting the park, and as a consequence, the screen grew to gigantic proportions drawing one into the center of the action. There I sat, weeping one moment and laughing the next. I looked about me and realized that here I was at 10:30 at night sitting on a blanket in a park in Paris watching a Chinese movie with French subtitles and thoroughly enjoying myself. OM had long since left and gone back to the apartment, as there were No English subtitles! For the entire two hours, one could have heard a pin drop. This small, neighborhood park full of people sitting on blankets and not one sound heard but the Chinese spoken in the film and the achingly beautiful movie score that floated through the park into the hearts of that small world gazing up in wonder.

This was just one of those precious August days, gift of Lady Paris that disappears with Rentrée.

 

Early Morning in Paris

Venues for a morning walk are many. Bus 76 begins its day at 6:45AM and arrives at my corner around 7:04AM. Stepping up into the bus along with four men on their way to job sites, I slide my carnet ticket into the meter, walk to the back and take a window seat.   The streets are empty at this early hour, my favorite time of a Parisian day. Taking advantage of our location, I often vary my walking routes embarking directly from my street or directly from a stop along the route of Bus 76.

Today I descend from my Bus 76 at Bastille.

Turning in a slow circle, the choices are many: perhaps Hotel de Ville and its medieval paths where visions of brandishing swords and swirling capes of Defoe’s Musketeers pirouette over cobblestone streets, or maybe beautiful Marais and its Place de Vosges where Hugo labors away at Les Miserable. Less explored but equally charming is walking Beaumarchais toward Canal St Martin, picking up a café at 10 Belles and then slipping into the exquisite gardens of Hôpital Saint Louis for an hour of reading or reflection.  But no, today the walk is to the Seine and Île de Cité, the heart of Paris.

I leave behind me the massive July Column that commemorates the French Revolution (1789) and the July Revolution (1830). At the top of the July column stands a gold-leafed bronze statue Génie de la Liberté (Spirit of Freedom) seeming to race ahead to cry the news of the 3-day revolution that brought the citizen king Louis-Philippe to power. History comes to life in Paris.

Rue Henri IV, a street named for a singular, most beloved King, le bon roi Henri (Good King Henry) sends my mind racing to the turbulent years following the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (August 1572). The ensuing Wars of Religion (1584-1588) find Henri IV, Huguenot and presumptive heir to the French throne embattled against another Henri, Henri I, Duke de Guise, leader of the Catholic League and a good portion of French aristocracy. Henri IV wins the major battles but is brought to a halt at the borders of Paris. Understanding that he is not able to take control of catholic Paris, strategist Henri IV converts to Catholicism, supposedly quipping, “Paris is well worth a mass.” And voilà, he is King.  Rue Henri IV has much to offer.

Quietly tucked behind this lightly traversed street stands the home of the Garde Républicaine, providing Guards of Honor for the State and responding to security needs of Paris. Omega Man and I walk this way often, giving each other high fives when we catch these superb horsemen doing their drills.

Further down Rue Henri IV is the statue to the poet Rimbaud whom I met through his exquisite verse when a young college student.  I loved his youthful desire to explore and the strength to face its disappointments.  Le Bateau Irve (“The Drunken Boat) still reaches me. This “man with soles of wind” gave voice to a journey of experiences filled with pure and transcendent images in peril of loss.  Perhaps, not dissimilar to life.  Always, I stop at his figure represented as a youth in a horizontal position, seeming to rock on the waves of a world gone tipsy.

Across the street from my Rimbaud is Pavillon De L’Arsenal, an unexpected discovery on one of my walks. OM and I spend hours here studying the photo layouts in order to understand how the city of Paris evolved. It is a must see for any student of architectural history; it warrants a full morning or full afternoon that passes all too swiftly.

This morning there is no time to sit and read, but still I walk quickly through the small park Square Henri Galli, named after a long forgotten journalist-politician of the third Republique. I stop at my bench where I often sit and gaze down upon the Seine, across to I’île de Saint-Louis. I, alone, have the whole park.  How wondrous is that?

Pont Saint Michel is straight ahead; halfway over, a narrow, small street departs at a right angle off the bridge. Rue Saint-Louis en I’îIe becomes the path through Île Saint-Louis. I adore this narrow, medieval street. Four hours later tourists will be lined up and down this humble, but pricey medieval street to order a Berthillon ice cream cone, the Parisian answer to “the best of all possible worlds.” However, now it is empty but for a curious woman on her morning walk and two men standing, one behind the other, waiting for the neighborhood boulangerie to open its doors.

I leave ÎIe Saint-Louis behind me as I take tiny Pont de Saint-Louis to Île de Cité, site of Cathedral Notre Dame. The pont Saint Louis is closed to traffic, and if it were to be several hours later, street artists would be delighting the crossing tourists. I hurry across because it has occurred to me that I might get to Notre Dame as it opens and have it to myself.  And, yes, that is the case.

Having Notre Dame to oneself is a snapshot never to be forgotten. The custodian/guardian opens the Cathedral doors and remains outside setting up ropes and placards for the lines that will ensue. I walk in, move up the center isle and stand quietly, then sit, then kneel and pray. I am not religious. I think of myself more as a skeptic with a churchman’s conscience. But there are those moments when something happens, something that passes understanding.

As I exit Notre Dame, I see people coming from different directions, all heading toward the cathedral. Certainly, this is a testament to architecture, to history or, perhaps, to something much, much more.

My pace picks up for now I am nearing my destination, my favorite café spot in Paris. I discovered it thirteen years ago. I could detour and take Boulevard du Palais passing by the exquisite Sainte Chapelle and then turn down the Quai de l’Horloge passing the Concierge, place of Marie Antoinette’s imprisonment. To be Queen of such a brilliant country, to be so oblivious of the tides of the time and to be brought so low, what were her thoughts? But no, I am now impatient to get to my “La Rose de France” in Place Dauphine, so I skirt around Palais de Justice, cross the small courtyard of Place Dauphine, and sit down at a table in front of La Rose de France. I order my café crème and sit back with my book. Always carry a book. I am alone, the little courtyard is just waking and soon elegant Parisian ladies appear with their petit chiens (little dogs). On slender leashes, the precious Fifi’s and Bijoux’s drag their Parisian haute couture owners on the morning walk. I admire the aloof little poodles, but more so the fashion parade of the latest style, accessory, purse and shoe.

What would I do without the Place Dauphine Fashion Parade? It is what I see here that arms me well for the annual Paris July and February sales.

An hour and half passes with not a sound but the breeze. Gradually, I hear the sounds of the city waking. It is time for me to walk back home.

Hesitating for a moment, I think again. After all, trusty bus 76 stops at Pont Neuf and Place Dauphine is on Pont Neuf directly in front of the handsome equestrian statue of beloved Henri IV.  Again, so many choices.

On the way to growing up

Life in our quartier (neighborhood) has a pace of its own. Downstairs family has expanded. What began four years ago with two red head granddaughters 4 and 2 has become 8-year-old princess of dreams, 6 year old miss busy bee and a bonus package of terminator man, now 3 years old. Princess of Dreams attends École primaire (Ages 6-11, Grades 1-5), Miss Busy Bee attends École maternelle (Ages 3-5, Pre School-Kindergarten) and Terminator Man attends the neighborhood crèche (10 months to 3 years). When first introduced to the French “crèche” system, I threw up my hands in dismay, and said as subtly as I could as I did not want to offend “She” who was mother to my perfect grandchildren, “Surely, you do not mean beginning at 10 months old; surely you do not mean from 9:00 to 6:30 every day of the week?” However, surely She did. I imagined the crèche to be a Stalinist institution of mediocre care.   I was so wrong, and today I am a confirmed proponent of the crèche system. A child enters its doors with smiles and eager readiness for the day. After departing the crèche and L’École Maternale years, the child soon becomes aware that school is rigorous and demanding. The French school system does not cosset failure, so smiles can turn to grim determination. There is no reward for trying; the reward is in achieving and earning good marks.

The day begins at 8:15 when I go downstairs to third floor, knock on the door that quickly opens to shouts of greeting. Princess of Dreams bending beneath the weight of her school backpack, hustles out the door to push the button for the elevator, all the time demanding Miss Busy Bee to get a move on. Terminator Man bursts through the door insisting that he hold the elevator door open as he has figured out that by clinging to the handle and lifting his feet onto the narrow ledge of the door, he can ride it as it closes. Busy Bee is checking her glasses case in her carry bag, making sure that her sweater is buttoned just so, that her headband is the right one, repeats the schedule for day to mama verifying which one of us is picking her up from school. Mama gives last minute kisses on each cheek to the girls, wishes them a good day, gives me a hug, and whispers, “What would we do without you?” Now is that smart or what?

Exiting the building onto the sidewalk, the girls reach up to hold my hand. Three abreast we enter a parade of children holding parents’ hands, walking quietly down the street. I have now become a familiar face in this daily merging of student traffic and respond affectionately to greetings of “Bonjour” and “Ça va?” that fly through the air.   We enter the park that quickly becomes an intersection of children and adults merging from different directions, each small pairing woven into a dance of adjusting clothes, last minute instructions, hugs, smiles and some tears. More greetings with the ‘oft repeated French kisses on each cheek to the lilting melody of the ubiquitous “ Ça va?”

Across the street from the park exit stands École Premaire, aloof and proud of its long history of educating Paris children.  On its wall stands a solemn plaque: “In the memory of the students of this school deported from 1942-1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazi Barbarity and the Vichy government. More than 1200 children of the 11th arrondissement were exterminated in the death camps. We will never forget.  (Ne Les Oublions Jamais )

Princess of Dreams stops and makes it known that she walks alone the last 150 feet because she IS 8 years old. I smile; we kiss cheek to cheek; she turns to Miss Busy Bee and they kiss cheek to cheek with hurried murmurings of “Bonne Journées.” Hitching up her weighty backpack, she walks away like a brave Valkyrie ready for battle. Before disappearing through enormous doors that lead into the school courtyard, she pauses and turns back to make sure we are still standing there. And, of course, we are.

Grabbing my hand, Miss Busy Bee whirls us about, and we skip back through the park to l’École Maternale. Children on scooters come into view with a papa or mama trotting along beside them. Dadas with toddlers on their necks come bouncing down the street; laughter follows the crazy quilt pattern of children hurrying to kindergarten. Making the turn onto rue Faidherbe, I witness further evidence of this mood metamorphosis. Vespas with a child tucked between a Dada’s or a Mama’s knees travel the street and come to a stop in front of the school. Helmets come off and a papa or a mama scoops up the child and races to the door. Bicycle Mamas with children riding tandem back and front gracefully make the turn off loading their chattering children. The most engaging sight is the mama with her bicycle altered to hold three children. I love watching her pedal down the street, baby in the front basket, eyes gazing upward at the blue sky and its dreaming white clouds;  her cheerful 4 year old daughter sits in front and faces her, leaning forward to hear her mama’s words, and on the seat behind her with his feet almost touching the ground sits her son. He watches the baby while mama takes her daughter by the hand and heads for the door. The guardian who knows each child’s name welcomes us. She bends low to each child and says “Bonjour, Alan, Bonjour Anouk”, and each child responds, “Bonjour, Maîtresse”. We clamor up the stairs, pass through a second set of doors, cross the little play yard and enter the school where we are again met by the principal who welcomes each child and parent. Next we climb a set of stairs to Miss Busy Bee’s classroom where we form a polite line to exchange salutes with the classroom teacher, each child giving and receiving the “Bonjour.” Busy Bee and I exchange kisses, she all smiles and joy, I sad to depart.

The timing is inexact but somewhere between the lighthearted 6 year old and the serious 8 year old with her weighty backpack, the time curtain falls and childhood gradually but inexorably is left behind. Learning takes a serious note. French schools demand it.

It is now 8:35A.M. My 20 minute kaleidoscope of “la vie Parisian”  calls for a café and maybe, just maybe a croissant. Le Pure Café is just down the block.

Le Grand Mentor

This journey of life sends us into the world on paths that like a giant cobweb present multiple possible directions. Paths can lead to a main road that sweeps its travelers along in happy harmony until it meets a juncture or, heaven forbid, a round a bout with its enticing signature exits. It is comfortable to stay on the main road, but an unexpected crossing of paths can change the perspective of the journey and lead to an entirely different destination. Paths crossing one another occur regularly but a crossed path of mutual recognition is rare and probably does not occur more than two to three times in a lifetime.   The trick is to recognize it and then to take advantage of it.

I did not notice him when I walked into the room. Arriving slightly late, I cast my eyes over the room and took in three circled groups of people, heads tilted forward toward each other, speaking in low voices. I saw one empty chair in the near group, and before I could turn around, run back up the stairs and out the door, I sat down.

It was my second week in Paris, and this was my first attempt to face head-on la langue Française; I had signed up for WICE, a conversation group that speaks forty-five minutes in French and forty-five minutes in English. I was praying that I had hit the forty-five minute English period in order to ease my transition into the French period. No such luck. French was moving melodiously around the circle. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. I sat there with studious look on my face, carefully adjusting my body language and facial expressions to reflect those of the group as the conversation moved along. They smiled, I smiled; they looked pensive, I frowned in sympathy. My fears were justified; I understood not one word. A little bell went off, and the leader said, “Now we switch to English.”   Talk about saved by the bell! A question on American politics was posed to the group. To this day, I do not remember the question, but I do remember that I happened to know the topic well. I hesitated briefly, but then decided, “Oh, go ahead” and talking to the group gave as clear an explanation as I could. It was then that I noticed him as he stood up. I thought he was going to turn his back on the group and depart, finding my response inept and not worth his time, or, perhaps, I had said something offensive. But no, he picked up his chair, circled the group, bent over the man sitting next to me and asked him to move over. He then put his chair down next to mine, leaned toward me and gazing directly into my surprised eyes, said, “I have a proposal for you.” Thus my path crossed the path of Georges, mon grand mentor.

I never went back to WICE. For a year and a half I met Georges every Wednesday at his beautiful apartment in the 16th arrondissement. He greeted me at the door, walked me through the grand entry and hall to his office, a spacious room with a colossal table stacked with books, note paper, pens, clock and an hourglass. He prepared us espressos that we quaffed in two swallows, and then we sat locked in discussion, sometimes debate for the next two hours, he eloquent in English, I struggling in my French. Studying with Georges was the equivalent of taking an advanced degree in French history, European political history, World War I, the geopolitical split up of the Ottoman Empire, World War II, creation of Israel, France and Indochina, France’s internecine war in Algeria, the Algerian Jew, the 1492 expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain.  I had stumbled into an Oxford with my own private don.

My education went something like this:

“Georges, you are a pied noir? What does that mean?”

“What! Do you know nothing about Algeria? About France and its tragic war? I tell you in French; you come back and tell me in French also.”

To the American library go I, and I learn about the horrible Algerian war that still is discussed in hushed voices or not discussed at all.

“Georges, I have read about Algeria, about the call for De Gaulle to return to solve the problem. What is so great about De Gaulle? From my studies, FDR and Churchill put up with him and kept him as much out of the picture as possible.”

“Ah! You know nothing; you know nothing at all. Charles de Gaulle is the greatest man. He saved la France. He saved La France. Come with me.”

He escorted me, I thought, possibly, out the door, but, no, into his grand salon where three walls presented shelves filled with books from floor to ten foot ceiling. The other wall was a series of windows that opened out to beautiful court garden views. A baby grand piano rested in front of the view. He pointed to two rows of books that covered two of the three walls and said, “Those are all books on Charles de Gaulle. He saved France. You know nothing if you do not know what Charles de Gaulle has done for France. You know nothing.”

To the American library went I and out was checked every book I could find on Charles de Gaulle.

“Georges, I am still not understanding why the Jews of Algeria were able to get French citizenship and their Muslim neighbors could not.”

“Grâce à Dieu! I thank Her every day, and I also thank a little remembered 1870 French government minister, Monsieur Crémieux. Tell me about him next time.”

To the Internet go I, and there I find an amazing story of a most amazing man, Adolphe Crémieux and the Crémieux Decree of 1870. This is history better than one can make up.

“I worry about my France; it does not keep up. I love America. I have given many talks in America at the medical conventions. I love speaking English; I need to keep practicing it, but it is difficult to find good conversation in English. These hours are wonderful for me. “

“They are wonderful for me too, Georges.”

Two paths that intersect and proceed alongside each other for a nice distance eventually find that their individual course spills into another track that gradually separates it from the other. It is the distance from the separation that heightens the awareness of the importance of that meeting. So it has been for mon grand mentor, Georges.

When I met Georges five years ago, he was 85 years old.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again

Brexit: A European moment that should have fared better

They did it, but what were they thinking?  Thinking?  Ay, there’s the rub. No one really believed the vote would be to exit. However, there was an eerie similarity of headline grabbing sound bites and easy answers to difficult problems that I had observed in the United States, which resulted in the emergence of a presidential candidate born by a wave of disaffection with government and the elites who run it. But England, historically, the stalwart beacon of courage and leadership could not be subject to such shallow short-term thinking, could it? Did it not fight two World Wars to keep the rights of Europe’s sovereign countries bound by a common core of beliefs free?   Those core beliefs lay at the doorstep of Augustus and the great Pax Romana whose long arm reached across Europe including the emerald isle.   England is also Europe. Why the divorce?

Perhaps the answer lies more in the fact that we are living through a transition period, and transition from what is known to the unknown is fearful. We are leaving the world of nation-think to the world of global-think. What is the reality of that new world? No one knows in certainty; however, the indisputable fact is that we are moving slowly, inexorably into that future. Borders disappear in a plethora of network data links. We are no longer one but many with instant information an iPhone away.

The Brexit vote revealed a divide in England along the line of age, region and class. The young, the urban, the tech-savvy adult voted “IN”; the old, the rural, the displaced laborer voted “OUT.” The “Out” campaign based on “sound-bite” promises of “take back control, no more immigration, and stop sending £350m a week to EU” were maneuvers of Boris Johnson (former London Mayor) and rival to current Prime Minister Cameron, both in the same Conservative party. Johnson has not appeared to be anti-Europe, and from all assessments, he assumed the “Out” vote would fail. This was a political moment that gave him the opportunity to advance his power within the party. On the other hand, Cameron’s 2013 bluff at the table to throw in the promise of a referendum if his ultra right wing would hold with him led to the June 23, 2016 dangerous high-roller game of chance. The call came; the vote taken, and for Johnson, a pyrrhic victory; for Cameron, a sad ending to a failed career.

America was lucky; in its hour of need, it had a small, immigrant Scotsman, Alexander Hamilton, who saw the long view and through brilliant writing and formidable debates carried the day. Equally blessed was India having had the guidance of V. Patel in unifying its many regions into an integrated country. The European Union is based on such intent, to create a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe. The enormity of such a task should not be taken lightly and, perhaps, better understood by Britain before its vote.

The European Union originating principal was with the aim of ending European wars. It began in 1950’s with six countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands – uniting economically and politically under the European Coal and Steel Community to secure lasting peace. Between 1970 – 1979 Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom raised the number of Member States to nine. The EU began regional policies that would create jobs and infrastructure in poorer areas. During the 1980-89 decade, the face of Europe changed. Greece, Spain and Portugal joined the EU. The Single European Act was signed aimed at establishing free flowing trade for a “Single Market.” Lech Walesa of the Polish trade union became front-page news, and in 1989 the Berlin wall fell leading to the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. 1990-1999: With the collapse of communism, Europeans became closer neighbors. Austria, Finland and Sweden joined. Agreement on a Single Market was decided and two treaties were signed: one focusing on European Unity (Maastricht Treaty 1993) and the other on environment, security and defense (Amsterdam Treaty 1999). The agreement most dear to a traveler is the ‘”Schengen” agreement whose name is taken from a small village in Luxembourg. This agreement of 1995 made Europe countries without borders, allowing people to travel easily from country to country without having their passports checked. Britain, who suffers either from xenophobia or elitism, did not sign Schengen.

There are 28 members of the European Union with the euro as the standard of currency. A strong, united Europe whose voice is audible on the world stage has never been more needed. From the depths of its history, wisdom can be drawn and passed around the table of nations. But for the want of a leader, the moment was lost.

Brexit Outcome:

What is the best that can happen? The Brexit vote will make the European Union stronger; it will study cracks in its foundation, stabilize the movement, strengthen the structure, and hold together with renewed determination. With the exodus from London that will follow, its housing prices will fall making it possible for someone to buy a home other than an oligarch.

What is the worst that can happen?

The European Union will fall apart, a thought to sad to ponder. When short view politicians come to the poker table and play for high stakes, and this game was for high stakes, there are no winners. When people are led by those who feed their fears, there are no winners.

What is a certainty is that history is not short on the long view.

 

First Impressions

First impressions are important. They open doors; they close doors. Certainly not error proof, a poor first impression can undermine the most well intended introduction.   Paris, confident in its standards of excellence, is not easily forgiving.

A look back in time

Arriving at Charles de Gaulle with our suitcases in hand, Omega Man and I had no expectations of Paris other than survival. I had put into memory our Paris address and listened to “google.translate” ad infinitum to its French intonation so that there could be no misunderstanding when I gave it to the taxi driver. He nodded in understanding, and forty-five minutes later, we were at our door. The day turned into a blur as we moved into our sixth floor appartement 2 pièces, (2 room apartment). In France, one does not count the bathroom or the kitchen as a room (pièce).  We had a bedroom, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen. Only one at a time could fit into the bathroom, and we needed to turn sideways to pass each other in the galley-like kitchen. Our tidy, little apartment was all of 320’. From a California point of view, this experiment in sizing down had abruptly entered a dimension of uncharted territory where none had gone before.

Exhausted and collapsing into the chair with a glass of wine, I surveyed our brave new world. Omega Man, with an anxious expression and voice of concern, turned to me and said , “What are the plans for dinner?” I waited a bit and sweetly replied, “Well, I am really not hungry; I have not seen a neighborhood Safeway, and I do not know where to order out. What do you propose?” Perhaps, the tone of voice I used was not so charmingly pleasant as I thought because he quickly decided that he would go out and bring back food. Hunter-gatherer was coming to the rescue.

Two hours later, OM reentered our cozy abode carrying two bags. With shoulders at salute readiness, chest thrust forward and a smile of triumph on his face, he strode into the room. In military style, he snapped plates of Chinese food onto our little round table that fits two place settings exactly. He carefully laid plastic chopsticks and tiny, thin napkins next to each plate, pulled the small table over to the bed which served as one seat for the table and the chair the other, and said, “Dinner served.” I stood there stunned.   Yes, he was a Marine, and yes, his mantra “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” has served him well. But this was extraordinary. OM is not a Chinese food aficionado. He never orders Chinese food. Never. I highly praised him for sallying out on his first night in Paris to find food, and to bring back Chinese, which I adore, was simply brilliant. I suddenly found myself hungry and quite happy to sit down and join him. After dinner, I sat down at the window, looked out over rooftops, and wrote, “I think this is going to work.”

A few days later:

During the next few days, I began to notice OM looking a little sheepish each time I congratulated him on his hunter-gatherer outing. I had repeated the story to downstairs, my abbreviated name for our son, Strategy Man, his wife and our two lovely redhead granddaughters who live three floors below us. All were impressed and hailed him for his successful reconnaissance in a non-English speaking neighborhood. However, one evening a week later, with downcast eyes and an abashed look on his face, he said that actually, he might not have been quite the hunter-gatherer we all thought.

The Hunter Gatherer Escapade:

OM had set out on his forage with high hopes and quickly came to a nice shop with goods presented in its window. Right in the middle of the display was the pepperoni pizza of his dreams. He entered the store and pointed at the pepperoni pizza to the lady behind the cabinet. In a clear voice, he said, “I would like your pepperoni pizza.” He was met with a blank stare and quizzical expression. She, of course, said something about which he had no clue. Again, he said, “Pizza, pepperoni pizza.” He thinks he may even have raised his voice in the event she could not hear well. Her face got a little red, the blank stare turned to one of frustration and more unintelligible sounds issued from her lips. OM began to perspire; the mission was not going well. Just then, three motorcycles pulled up and parked in front of the little shop. Three burly men got off, opened the door to the little shop and stood in line behind OM. OM, being a motorcycle man, hastened to make himself understood. “Madame, please, the pepperoni pizza there”, and pointed to it again. The men behind him snorted and nudged each other. The door opened and closed with two others entering the line behind them. Now there was a gathering of silent French observers, witnessing the muddled exchange going on between OM and the employee. At last, one swarthy motorcyclist tapped OM on the shoulder and said with heavy French accent, “Monsieur, is rhubarb pie!” The pepperoni pieces so invitingly sticking up were rhubarb pieces; it was not a slice of pepperoni pizza but a slice of rhubarb pie. Snickers ran down the line. OM shrunk two inches and with face burning red in embarrassment, backed quickly out of the shop saying, “Oh, sorry, so sorry.”

However, the mission still stood: Food for the table. In definite fallback position from his first encounter, he reconnoitered the side street and in great relief saw the path to victory. Picture choices of dinner dishes were posted on a window. He went inside, brought out the employee and pointed at two pictures. Communication happened. Quickly the bag was filled with two orders of Chinese Takeout.

 Moving forward in time:

I heard the elevator door opening, heard the key in the lock and looked up to see OM enter the room. In his hand was a bag full of mouth-watering pastries. With a big smile, he said, “This is a gift to me from the patisserie.”

OM had learned that his pizza shop error was in reality a very beloved local patisserie that made delicious bread, croissants and baked dessert treasures. He became one of its loyal clients, and they came to love him. They looked forward to his entrance and the sign language that accompanied each purchase. On this day, they called OM aside and spoke to him in halting English of his loyal constancy to their patisserie and to show their appreciation for such loyalty, they would like to give him this gift bag of patisseries.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Awkward First Impressions can be overcome.

Going from Here to There

It is another rainy afternoon in Paris. As I sit here in my favorite café, sipping my crème café (basically French version of cappuccino without being a cappuccino) and looking through the rain-spattered window, I could not help but chuckle in bewilderment, “How did I get from there to here?”

In my case, it was a phone call from Paris four years ago. I picked up the phone and heard my son say, “Mom, what do you and Dad think of coming to Paris for a year?” My immediate response, “Are you kidding? No, no, it’s impossible.” After returning the phone to its stand, “I turned to my husband and said, “ You won’t believe what was just proposed.” I would like to say that lightening struck, a star fell, a bush burned but the impetus to put into action a plan to move to Paris for a year was motivated solely by my absolute faith that it was impossible.

Lesson #1: Never believe anything is impossible.

I am married to an Omega man who is comfortable in any scenario and a willing adventurer. We had two beautiful grand daughters age four and age two whom we saw too rarely, at the most two to three times a year. The distance between Silicon Valley and Paris made the idea of “extended family” a joke.  Our son, the strategist, was able to secure a small apartment on the 6th floor of the same building as he and his family lived. The convergence of these positive signals demanded attention.

Lesson #2: Act on good fortune

Leaving an established pattern of life to an uncertain future is daunting. Leaving friends is sad. Moving to a city where one is friendless, the language foreign and the culture intimidating can be the tipping point too far or the tipping point that puts a sparkle in the eye.

Lesson #3: Sparkle in the eye results in leaping before looking.

Renting one’s home:

I put our home on Craig’s List certain that there would be no response. Three days later, I had a wonderful family who loved our home. Paperwork moved seamlessly, and, suddenly, we were footloose.  I left our home furnished, paintings on the wall, Persians on the floor, china in the cabinets. The importance of to whom one rents is critical. Had I thought that through? Of course not. Friends were shocked and gave me that sad look of condolence for my diminished mental ability. My inane defense was a meek response, “Well, they seem really nice,” knowing full well that I had met them for all of two hours.

Lesson #4: Have faith in your instincts (with a back-up “best of all possible worlds” philosophy.)

Preparing the home:

Our church Next to New Clothing Shop became my best friend. I wore a path to its doors with hangars of suits and dresses, boxes of shoes, and bags of sweaters, shirts and ties. Treasures that had not been used, worn, or read in the past three years were taken to the community Good Will sites. That week of sorting and removing, I call “The Great Parting.” Interesting to me was the fact that for all the angst of my harried triage, I had no remorse. I began to feel lighter and lighter. Fortunately, we have a separate little cottage on our property essential for storage of those truly necessary items and clothes from which one definitely cannot be parted. As I culled the remaining treasures that would stay, I sensed their tenuous hold on me as though they could foresee another great sorting upon my return. “Throwing away” was getting easier and easier.

Lesson #5: Lightness of Being is Good

Packing

American Airline Policy: two bags each. Conundrum: what to pack for one year and what I assumed would be four seasons?  Paris Reality: One season, that being Rain. But we did not know it then.

Lesson #6: Ignorance is helpful

My paranoia about being that person so oft besmirched in stand-up comedy, the termagant “Mother-in-law,” out weighed all concerns about packing. My daughter-in-law did not know me well.  How would “She” accept me?  Not at all sure this Paris venture would really work, I thought two suitcases would do the job just fine.

Lesson #7: Ye of little faith, be not fearful.

With plane tickets in hand and two suitcases each, we set off: San Francisco to Paris. We were on our way to There. Little did I suspect that There would one day be Here.