Missing My Book Group Who Would Love Paris

Dear Book Group Members:

I am missing our meeting tonight, but I know the red wine flight or the 5 o’clock Somewhere margarita at Swing’s will be someone’s choice for the evening. Lift one for me.

I wish you could see what I see as I write. I am perched on a tall stool looking out grand windows that I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach the latch.  

Three ornate buildings with sculpted balustrades hovering over the tops of the windows and balconies framed with black, wrought iron railings are close enough neighbors I could say hello without raising my voice. When I stick my head out the window, the view down the street is filled with fluttering awnings, sidewalk tables with neatly folded blankets on the chairs, and light from shops spilling out onto the cobblestone streets.

We are staying at 19 Rue de la Harpe, Saint Michel Notre Dame, a third-floor apartment with stairs so narrow, Paul and I had to walk on our tip toes while carrying our horrendously heavy suitcases. Paul has given in—we will buy one more to get everything home.

Notre Dame is just over our shoulder here on the Isle de la Cite on the Left Bank. Heavy, tolling bells and singing chimes announce the start of every hour. I run to open the window or stop on the sidewalk to listen. All of Notre Dame’s bells are named and tuned to a specific key. I would like to hear Emanuel, hoisted into place in 1681 and weighing 13 tonnes (Conversion needed) but he is only rung on high holidays or moments of great importance. Guess what? What I always called the “clapper” in the bell (forgive me, I know), is actually called the ‘fighter.’ Paul and I are still discussing the physics of who swings what and what gets hit where. (Now the bell image is gone, oui?)

When we were in Normandy on a D-Day tour, I thought of you often. We read those novels on World War II—The Nightingale, the Lilac Girls, All the Light We Cannot See, The Gournsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—and I saw all the characters we brought to life in our conversations. The small French villages where the resistance fighters smuggled children out in wagons and women planted gardens out of the treasured few seeds they had left, and the long fields where they walked and dreamed of a life beyond the ugliness were real—just as we had discussed.

We have had our ‘near accidents’ as always: we almost hit a cow late at night that wandered out of its field, and, of course, the first thing I thought, ‘I can blog about this!’

We took up every spare place for suitcases in the train car and Paul and I pretended they weren’t ours; and we stared at our host and hostess every morning at the bed and breakfast inn as they grumbled to one another in murderous French. I am not sure if they resented us or they were having troubles in their marriage.

We have a few more days until we leave for home. I am reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway. We have a tour tomorrow on the Roaring Twenties—Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Ford, Eliot, Picasso, Dali—all the places they ate, drank and lived. Gertrude Stein better be on the top of the list—she mentored them all, and of course her lover, Alice B. Toklas.

I’ve never been a Hemmingway fan, but I am loving this book. Remember last month when you asked me ‘Lesley, why are you writing? What are you going to do?’ I didn’t how to answer without stumbling over my words trying to make sense of my writing life. So, I’ll let Hemmingway speak for all writers: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Looking forward to seeing you in December.

Much love,

Lesley

The Taste, Sound, Touch, Smell and View of Paris Is Unrelenting and Beautifully So

Paris is an assault on the senses.

Last night Paul and I ate dinner in a neighborhood bistro called the Alchemist. We ordered the prix fixe dinner that was listed in chalk on the wall. We didn’t know what we were ordering. Paul was curious.

He stood up in the middle of the restaurant and positioned his phone to take a picture of the whole menu written in loopy, smudged handwriting. It was a moment where I experienced what it must be like to be Paul married to me.

“Sit down,” I hissed. “Everyone is looking at you.”

Paul sat down and fiddled with his phone. The Google Translate app could take text and translate it into English. He looked up at me. “It didn’t translate. We’ll have to guess.” We each pick an appetizer—goat cheese stuffed peppers for me and lentil soup for Paul. He put a large spoonful in his mouth and then stopped. “Potato?” He swallowed. “Here,” he said and shoved the spoon between my lips. A marble-size lump rolled onto my tongue.

“Not a potato,” I said biting into it. It melted and broke into pieces. It tasted like everything in the soup in one small little bite. The restaurant owner came over and Paul scooped one of the chunks from the soup and held it out for his inspection.

“Champigon,” he shrugged. “Mushroom.”

Paul and I held hands over the table. “It’s a mushroom,” I said relieved.

“A mushroom,” Paul sighed, happy and satiated, and scraped his bowl clean. “A mushroom.”

The sounds of Paris are the barest whisper to the most frightened wail. Dishes are stacked softly, croissants crumble and flake to the table top, feet shift on the Metro as riders wait for their stop, vespas buzz like bees and jump curbs. The scream of ambulances and police vehicles sound like the ones in Rome and London. I think hard, but in that moment, I cannot remember the sound of our own ambulances at home.

Paul attempts to jaywalk across the teeming streets, but I will no longer follow him. He thought we had time to run across a traffic circle near the Alexander III Bridge, and the stoplight turned. Motorcycles, cars, taxis, and buses merged together behind and to the side of us. We ran, splashing through rain puddles, and I yelled, “Shiiiit, Fuuuck, Pauuul.” Now I shake my head and point my finger at him when we become separated on different sides of the street.

Touching Paris is best done in shops while caressing silk scarves laid out in overlapping swaths like splayed decks of cards.  I rub cashmere wraps against my cheek and wonder if perhaps I can get can one more if we buy another suitcase. Two different women have taken off my over garments, eager for me to see the grace of the scarf wrapped around my throat, the drop of a sweater against my leg, or the elegance of fur snuggled against my neck.

“Here, here,” one woman fretted, unwinding my scarf and throwing it to Paul. She pulls on the back of my collar and eases my coat off. This too, she tosses to my husband. He sits, refusing to remove the 5 euro hat he bought while my back was turned. He hunches on a low stool and glowers at the carpeted floor. It’s even worse when he decides to wait outside. He paces back and forth in front of windows always staying within view.

“It’s beautiful,” I say as I admire it in the mirror. It’s a black swing coat with black fur ringing the neck and circling the cuffs. She takes my hands and tucks them together so it looks like I have a muff between my fingers.

“It’s 500 euros, Darling,” she coos. “A coat for life, a coat to remember Paris.” I feel myself weakening. If I average the cost of the coat across over my lifetime it begins to seem like a deal. The saleslady wanders away to allow Paul and I time to negotiate.

“It’s fox,” Paul said holding my things out. “The fur is black fox.” I shed the coat instantly and hand it back to her. She whisks it away, cradling it in her arms like a wedding dress.

In Paris it is as if you cannot separate a smell from what it is or what it will become. The Seine’s waters are brackish, quick, and malodorous, moving and churning towards a port I cannot imagine. On the sidewalk at night we walk through clouds of flour that hold the promise of tomorrow’s croissant. Meat steams on plates, and unlike the States, swim in pools of au jus. Flowers on the street corners smell spicy and unusual. Buckets of Birds of Paradise, spiky and exotic, stand tall and graceful, while hydrangeas, heavy and full, are unmovable.  I feel displaced, lost, adrift. Decades ago my children and I would make Christmas cookies together and the flour drifted over us in a haze. I did not know I would walk through a cloud of flour in so different a place and time. Similarly, on my wedding day, I was unaware that the flowers I carried in my simple bouquet would someday lay in my gloved hand on a freezing Paris morning. Although aromas both linger and flee, they can unseat you and wash over you with memories made then and now.

The taste, sound, touch, and smell of Paris layer over one another like a tapestry, and it is impossible to pull the threads apart once they are bound together. To see Paris, however, is different. The enormous buildings, hundreds and more years old, feature copper cornices galvanized into green. The Louvre’s glittering pyramid looks like it has always been a part of the eight-century year old museum. Notre Dame’s Gothic spire and silent towers come to life when the bells toll. But, it is the moment you catch sight of her that make you swallow the lump in your throat and think to yourself, ‘It was worth the wait.’

The Eiffel Tower looms vast over the Seine. She is more substantial than I thought she would be. Her base is massive, and the interlocking metal skeleton appears determined as she climbs towards the top. She becomes graceful as the legs merge into the center. When I was in junior high school, I tacked a poster of her standing in the face of a setting sun to my bedroom wall. She was my totem, my affirmation that my romantic soul (so out of proportion), would someday find legitimacy. Never did I think it would take until my 52nd birthday to stand beneath her and watch her illuminating lights glow in the foggy night.  I looked at Paul and noticed the shine in his eyes. He looked just like I imagined he did as a small boy on Christmas morning. We clutch each other in the cold and laugh and kiss and laugh again.

I am convinced I can do anything in Paris now. I have tasted a soup in one marvelous bite, donned a fur coat whose secret made my heart blanch for being unaware, thrilled at the clash of traffic causing me to curse at the top of my lungs, discovered the allure of a scent, like a siren, that calls me back and leads me forward, but mostly, it is the Grande Dame herself who said, ‘You were right to wait. Your life is unrelenting and beautifully so.’

Finding a Way to Make New Friends in France

img_4653We’re here. We’re in Paris. I’ve already overcome my initial fears: to find my luggage, secure a taxi, negotiate the language barrier, put in the correct codes to the building, and turn the key in the right lock of the right flat, and figure out how to use the toilet. I was afraid to face a bidet. I don’t quite get it.  After 24 hours of flying, sitting, and eating food I normally wouldn’t eat, I need a glass of rose and a salad.

I look haggard in the mirror. I mean bad. I slather on my new Estee Lauder makeup, and I recognize my face begin to take shape. We decide to go out and find some food, so we press the elevator button—impair, meaning the odd floors—and wait for it to arrive. Paul looks at me and cocks his head.

“You don’t have any lips.” He sounds lost. We abandon the elevator and go back into the flat. I find lipstick and carefully outline my lips and fill them in.

“That’s better,” Paul said and pressed the button for the elevator.

I think of our other trips to Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Italy, Malta, Sicily, and Tunisia. Not for a minute did I worry about not fitting in in any of those places. I was the usual Lesley—marching through the streets, looking over my shoulder at Paul lagging behind, engaging with the locals, smiling, and making new friends.

So, what is different about France?

I’m afraid that my big approach to life will be too much. I’ll offend the sensibilities of a measured society filled with subtle cultural norms that I could blow out of the water without meaning to. img_4656

So, we arrive at a bar called Barracuda, and I couldn’t help myself. “Do you speak English?” I sputtered to the hostess. I intended to lead with classic “Bonjour, Madame”, but the true Lesley rocketed to the surface.

“Of course,” she said with a big smile. I had to stop myself from hugging her. Over a simple meal of salad and bread and cheese, we chatted with the bartender/barista, hostess, waitress, and patrons at the next table. I advised them of Airbnb’s new “Experiences” offerings where photographers, historians, tour guides, chefs, and artists could design a class—an experience—and market it on the website. A female photographer from Finland who speaks four languages, squeezed my arm and said,

“I am so glad I met you! I’m wanting to find direction in my life. You’ve given me a new idea.”

Me? I helped a woman who speaks four languages and knows how to use a fancy camera? img_4657

Paul and I walked around the block looking in on boulangeries, bistros, little grocery stores, and spas. We were almost back to the flat when I walked past a store window and screeched to a halt.

“Paul,” I said miffed. “Look.” I gestured at my clothes.

“What?” He was so tired his eyes were glazed over and deep red.

“Did you notice my dress?” He shook his head and then looked down at my legs. My tights and the dress were glued together with static electricity and they bunched up around my waist like an inner tube.

“And you were worried I didn’t have any lips?”

Planning a Paris Vacation in Less than a Month is Possible

So, you ask how Paul and I decided to go to Paris with less than a month to plan. You can thank my friend, Linda. It’s all her fault.

At my job I have to apply to take vacation leave, and when I submitted a leave request to go to Mexico for Thanksgiving, my supervisor wrote a little note at the bottom: “I hope you know this is not Thanksgiving week.”

“Linda,” I called from the bowels of my office. “When’s Thanksgiving?”

“The 22nd,” she replied.

“No, it’s not. It’s the 29th, right? The last week of November.” I was right. I knew I was right.

“Except if there are five weeks in November. Thanksgiving is always the 4th Thursday of November.”

“I thought it was always the last Thursday in November.” My voice quavered.

“Nope.”

In seconds, I was at her desk. “Are you kidding me?”

She pulled the little calendar off the wall next to her computer. She flipped past October and showed me November. In tiny little script, Thanksgiving was printed on the 22nd.

At home I pulled up our travel documents for Mexico. The week of Thanksgiving I had reserved a room in Zihuatanejo, but my airplane tickets were for the next week. I had a place to stay but no way to get there and a way to get there but no place to stay.

The woman on Alaska Airlines was sympathetic. “I really want to use those miles up. Are you sure I can’t change our tickets?”

“No, Ma’am. Since the time is so close, the tickets are prohibitively expensive.”

“Well,” I said aloud in our empty house, “Where else could we go?” Silence. Then the sound of clicking started. Her fingers went faster and faster. Then I heard the triumphant sound of the victory click.

“How about Paris?” She asked. “If you fly Icelandic Air I can even seat you in first class for part of it.”

“Paris?” It was getting dark outside and I didn’t know when Paul would be home. “Book it,” I said urgently. “Right now.”

We were going to Paris. Paul would be okay with it, wouldn’t he? It wasn’t Mexico, but, Paris. We’d been married almost 20 years (if you stretched it a tiny bit, like three years). He would be fine with it. I heard the garage door go up.

“Are we almost done?” I whispered.

“Yes, Mrs. Klenk, you are going to Paris.” She hit three more keys. “It’s on the way to your email account. Have a fabulous time.”

“Hi Honey, I am home.” Paul flipped the lights on and he saw the computer up and the phone on speaker mode.  He leaned against the door and sighed. “Where are we going?”

“Paris,” I smiled. “I knew you’d be on board. We’re even going first class.” His face brightened. “For part of it,” I smiled again and slunk in my chair.

So, for the last three weeks I have been focused on making this trip happen. I booked three different apartments and canceled two. A lovely surprise came out of nowhere, and a dear friend’s daughter-in-law offered her flat for the first part of our trip. I ordered 12 Paris books and maps from Amazon (our postal guy kindly shoves them in our mailbox so they don’t appear on the porch), I purchased tickets to a cabaret show, I booked a Hemmingway and Fitzgerald  Roaring Twenties Bar Tour, signed up for a photo shoot at the Eiffel Tower (only $100 bucks and well worth it if I don’t have to let Paul take selfies of my turkey-skin neck), a Normandy tour of the beaches of D-Day, train tickets to Caen, a rental car to go to Mont St. Michel, and I bought clothes—five different wraps, three pair of boots, four sweaters, two jackets with furry collars, and, I don’t know, a whole lot more, including a suitcase so large I can rest my elbow on it in a standing position. img_4568

Paul, on the other hand, was quiet. Too quiet. I decided to wait until he was watching TV and sneak out to the car to smuggle in my shopping bags. I bought him snappy shirts in peach, pink, and light green for “nights out.” img_4575 He looked at them and didn’t say much. He stared at his phone and flicked  a map on the screen whenever a commercial came on. I waited.

“Okay,” he announced. “I’m good to go.”

“What?” I was on Amazon deciding if I needed a green wrap to go with something I vaguely remembered I ordered that was green.

“I can get us around Paris now.”

“Explain, please.”

“I’ve been studying the map, and I know where everything is.” He tapped his head. “It’s all here.”

Thank God, I thought. He probably hasn’t even noticed all of the clothes.

“Paul, there’s something we need to get you as soon as we get to Paris.”

“Hmm.” NCIS was on. Maybe I could squeak this one past him.

“Men wear scarves over there. They are not deer hunting scarves. They’re silk scarves. Remember Pete, your brother, wears one?”

“I’m not wearing a scarf.” He didn’t look at me.

“Well,” I protested.

“Nope. Not going to do it.”

For the time being I have given it up. I am so far in the win category with my “Paris Prep” I will be more strategic as far as the scarf goes. Maybe the City of Light will move him. It’s too bad he doesn’t have a turkey-skin neck like me; he’d have a scarf already.