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July 17, 2011

Views From A Paris Window

Blvd St Michel, ParisThere’s no Eiffel Tower from my window; no Arc de Triomphe, cobblestone street, or art deco Metro entrance.  Rue Mouffetard Market –  with madame proprietor of La Fontaine aux Vins who now greets me by name, the boulangerie clerk who’s still not forgiven my 50 euro faux pas, the rows of vendors with fruits and vegetables, shellfish and whole fish and filets, and smelly, creamy, hard and moldy cheeses – is just beyond my slightly neglected courtyard and heavy, creaky double doors (brass knobs in the middle, of course, obliterating any chance of graceful entry).  From the map, I see that the Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden) is just around the next block and the Siene a bit beyond that.

But none of these Parisian treasures can I see from my flat’s tall, sweeping windows, the scrolled ironwork keeping me safely ensconced within as I gaze out over the neighborhood.

My window onto Paris is instead, filtered through a canopy of young trees, a border of sorts it seems, between my cozy enclave and the sprawling 1970’s high-rise just beyond the pigeons and the limbs and the sprouting leaves. It’s jarring to think of architectural abominations in Paris. Surely these formal, refined French skipped that entire era, turning the other cheek with a harrumph as they ordered another coffee.   Apparently not, unfortunately, since from my window the evidence looms, all dozen floors or so of identical balconies, metal-framed sliding glass doors, concrete pillars, and a flat industrial roof, presumably scattered with lounge chairs and potted plants to give it intimacy. No overflowing flower boxes, scrolling ironwork or imposing knobs-in-the-middle wood doors to be found.

View notwithstanding, I’m captivated by my window, and find myself transfixed there, with coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, or an occasional spread of fruit and cheeses midday. It’s the ever-changing landscape – not in views but in melody – that draws me back day after day.

It’s the extended family in the flat below, just out of sight, gathering on weekends and holidays, glasses clinking as laughter and conversation flows in beautifully fluid French, none of which I understand, who capture my imagination. They are artists and writers and teachers, I imagine, setting the cadence and the tone of the unfolding scene before me.

It’s the brilliant music, wafting from the buildings beyond, that compels me to throw open the windows and pour a bit more wine. Haunting a capella strains of the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America echoed through the late night air on July 4th, just another ordinary night in Paris.  The concert pianist (or at least my imagination makes it so) practices each evening, just as the sun sets in the late evening sky.  The operatic tenor hones his favorite piece late some afternoons, while the streets below buzz as families scurry home for the evening.

It’s the clashing and booming of fireworks for Bastille Day – and the days leading into it, as well as those thereafter, just for good measure – that remind me I’m a guest in someone else’s neighborhood. It’s their neighborhood bistro that revs up most evenings, the cheering and jeering and laughter wafting up through my open curtains late into the night. The beeping trash trucks, wailing ambulances, firetrucks and police cars that wander through only occasionally, shattering the still cadence with their urgency.

I visit my friends in St Sulpice, on Blvd St. Germaine, and on Ile de Cite and envy their urban energy. The street scene, the rows of cafes, dozens and dozens of chairs all spilling out onto the sidewalks, the eclectic buzz of the French and the tourists jockeying for position, the international mélange of noise and people and customs. “I’ll find a place near here next time I’m in Paris,” I think.

Then I slip down the steps under the art deco signs and into the tunnels, past the street art and streetlights and onto the train, heading home, back to the neighborhood. The cadence slows, and an elderly woman exits with me, chatting comfortably in French as we cross the street together, me trying not to let on I don’t understand. She smiles and waves slightly as we part company at the next corner. My small flashlight guides me through my darkened courtyard and up the stairs, the only sound my footsteps tiptoeing past neighbors’ doors as I settle in for the night.

The sun rises and the quiet, predictable patter again fills my window, the artists and teachers gathering below, the random left-over fireworks echoing in the distance on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning.

“Today we rest,” my neighbor tells me as we pass in the courtyard.

My neighbor, I realize.

I’ll continue to relish the visits with those friends and celebrate the noisy, chaotic buzz of life lived large along the banks of the Siene in trendy, fashionable Paris.   I’ll soak up every minute of it.

And then I’ll come home to my neighborhood.

July 4, 2011

Paris in July

Paris American AcademyYou’d think as much as I’ve traveled, a month in Paris as a writing student would come easy. OK. Maybe not the student or writing parts; that still has me worried. But a seasoned traveler morphing into Parisian life for a month, I should be able to do that, right?

Three days into it, here’s what I’ve discovered.

(By the way, sorry. Having sworn I’d never do top ten lists when I started this blog, I’m breaking that oath.)

  • Despite my initial impression, “Solde” is not a group of St Germaine boutiques  offering beautiful and diverse Parisian goods. The deals and bargains, however, are amazing.
  • The Metro stop Jussieu is only convenient if, after 45 minutes of purposeful wandering from the exit, you find yourself somewhere other than the opposing exit.
  • Bonjour, merci, si vous plait, and au revoir, if used strategically, can be sufficient vocabulary to successfully negotiate a rudimentary retail transaction.  Until the sales clerk tells you the price. In French.
  • There is no quantity of French vocabulary to successfully negotiate an early morning croissant transaction when your smallest currency is a 50 euro. Just deal with it; you will be admonished. In perfect English.
  • My hips are too wide for most tiny cafe chairs. The croissants are not likely to help.
  • No matter how hard I try to pronounce street names and Metro stops, I’m wrong. And there’s typically someone nearby to point that out.
  • Wine really does go with everything, even eggs. (So do frites, but they are like crack. Not even once.)
  • Okay. Maybe once.
  • When people stop me on the street and ask for directions, in French, I can’t offer a whit of assistance. But I’m thrilled they think I can.

But most of all,

  • There is no greater privilege than to study writing in Paris in July.


I’m already scheming to figure out how to get back next year. Maybe by then, I can speak a bit of French.



May 30, 2010

HEADING HOME . . . And Not Wanting it to End.

Munich airport, terminal one.  It’s early, cold, and pouring rain under an overcast and bleary sky.  Somehow fitting, it seems.  After two glorious months galavanting across Europe, we’re headed home.  Dusseldorf.  LA. And finally,  Honolulu.

No one’s saying much.  Rather quiet bunch.  All thinking the same – yet different — thoughts.  For me, it’s a time to reflect, ponder.  What are the “take-aways” from the experience?  After all the trains, cabs, buses, museums, ferries, funiculars, sights and subways,  how’ve we changed?  What goes home with us, becomes part of our fabric?

We’re travelers.  Unique, marching to the beat we’ve found to fit.  I marvel at the confident gait and stride these young vagabonders have cultivated.  Ipods, passports, paperbacks slung over their shoulder, they find their corner of the terminal the way their friends settle into their living room.

For Columbus and me, the business beckons. Payables, receivables, clients, marketing problem-solving.  We’ve been plugged in from afar – technology is an amazing thing – but it’s time to be back “in the office” actually touching it up close and personal.   And it’s summer – paddle season, sleep-away camps, hanging out with friends, summer programs . . . a whole sub culture to potentially get the kids plugged into, bringing order, purpose, and over-scheduling to the time traditionally reserved (at least in my day) for doing nothing at all.   We’ll find our way, I’m sure, but in our own time.  At the moment, all that activity feels like organized chaos (or “cha-chos” as Sacagawea calls it).  We’ll ease back in, one day at a time, until we find our step.  Reconnect with friends.  Weave the fibers of the experiences into our own fabrics.  Unpack.  Pay some bills. Do some writing.  It’s a clean slate, summer, and a chance to fill the palate as we want.  Don’t rush.  Get it right.

Then we’ll be off again to another part of the globe, our little family exploring the planet one place at a time.

May 10, 2010

Finding Our Juju in Italy

It’s probably the gelato.  Or the romantic language.  Or perhaps it’s simply the sheer silliness of the national stubbornness, particularly when it makes the least sense.  Somehow, we believe we might have been Italian in another life.  Never mind the freckles, fair skin and red hair.  It just feels like we belong here.  Not at first, of course.  Home isn’t always home right away.  But it happens.   It’s Italian we keep defaulting to, forgetting it’s not the language of Croatia, or Greece, or Turkey, or that we really don’t know Italian in the first place.NAPLES ITALY

We flex our vagabonding muscles in Italy. It’s where we exhale, eat well, devour gelato, and kick back.  We revel in the confusion.  We laugh at ourselves and the awkwardness of global travel.  We find our spirit, our juju, alive and well and looking for adventure.

When befuddled shipmates almost stumbled onto a train bound to Pisa instead of Rome, Dundee jumped in, gently guiding them to the correct platform.  When a wheelchair-bound passenger had trouble making it across the tracks, it was Sacagawea and Dundee who nudged fellow passengers to help the guy hoist his chair (and himself) into the train as the heavy doors clanked closed.   I watch and learn, sheepishly recalling how many times I’ve stood silent in similar moments.

Making our way from Naples to Pompei by train and bus,  it’s clear we’re being followed.   A heavy-set Hispanic kid — early 20’s in baggy jeans, t-shirt and hip white sneakers, new and expensive — kept a steady pace, far enough back to not engage, but always just there, all the same.  We got off the bus at the wrong stop, so did he.  We crossed the street unnecessarily – and crossed back – so did he. I checked my money belt, confirming it was secure, and pulled the kids a bit closer.

We asked directions, and he stopped, loitering aimlessly until we moved on..  He shuffled when he walked, head down, as though trying to hide, be absorbed by the sidewalk.  His soulful brown eyes darted away, but always kept us in sight.

“Excuse me,” I said, suddenly turning to face him.  He jumped back, surprised.  “Do you know the best way to get to the train station for Pompeii?”

“No,” he replied sheepishly, staring at his shuffling feet.  I let the silence hang, staring at him.   “It’s my first time here and I don’t know how to get there.  I only have a few hours before I have to be back onboard, and want to see it, Pompeii.  I’m following you, hoping you’ll lead the way.”

POMPEII SCAVIAt least I got part of it right.   Hispanic, from Guatemala.   A shy kid, determined to see the world.   We reminded him of his family back home,  he said.  Thought he’d just tag along.  My money belt, quite safe, seemed we’d picked up another kid for the day.  A global “play date” of sorts, a new buddy for Dundee (and the rest of us.)  And together, we found Pompeii.

May 7, 2010


“Let yourself get lost in Venice,” everyone suggests.  “Walk. Wander. Discover.” Sailing past St. Marks and up the Giudecca by cruise ship is like taking a hot air balloon ride over the city.  It unfolds from above,  the Grand Canal giving way to back canals teeming with gondolas, vaparettos, and water taxis.; grand decaying palaces, small markets, church towers rising from the water.  Like falling down the rabbit hole with Alice, it’s a step back in time.

Columbus was right there, on cue, waiting on the pier as planned.   I know it’s the 21st century and all, but I still find it rather amazing – and terribly romantic – to rendezvous half a word from home, on a tiny sliver of dock.   Us on the ship’s high observation deck, him waving from the guard post at the dock, very cool indeed.

Sacagawea and Dundee were thrilled to show him the ropes, introducing him to our many new sailing buddies and sharing stories of our adventures.  Alan and Noemi, the delightful couple who make marital bickering a conversational art form (think Archie & Edith); Colleen, who’s been homeschooling her kids for 25 years, and her mom, Betty, who clearly planted the adventurous seed years ago; Don, the WWII vet who saw action around the globe – the guy Tom Brokaw wrote about in The Greatest Generation – and now holds a crowd with that mischievous  twinkle in his eye.  Tom, the ship’s destination guru, who’d spent the past 72 hours patiently repeating directions to Piazzale de Roma to worried and confused travelers (forget about the Doge’s Palace, St. Marks, or Peggy Geggenheim’s collection; it’s all about the luggage.)   And so many more…all our new posse from our trek across the sea.  Thanks to the great crew aboard our ship, Columbus got to spend the last night with us onboard, docked in Venice, just a quick glance at the world we’d called home for the past three weeks.

VENICE ITALYBack on terra firma and away from the ship, we settled into the Venetian beat.  From the tiny terrace of our creaky old hotel room , strategically located halfway between St. Marks and the Rialto Bridge, we watched gondolas glide and jostle through the canal sliver below.  Diners lingered over wine in the flower bedecked terraces of the trattoria across the canal, while visitors jammed the footbridges to capture photos of the magic. It’s just as we imagined, yet nothing like we expected.

Chatting up gondoliers until we found just the right one – seasoned (not too old and not too young), promising song, history, and stories – we became part of the scene.  He delivered brilliantly, gliding us under impossibly low bridges at high tide, telling tales of Casanova, Marco Polo and old Venetian families.  Down the Grand Canal at sunset, this old, creaky, smelly decaying city – no bigger than New York’s Central Park – simply shimmered as it’s done for hundreds of years.  The stories from its past — Carnivals of yesteryear, wealthy shipping magnates and scandalous explorers, Peggy Guggenheim and her dogs, Ezra Pound, his wife, mistress and the whole lot – all seem to whisper secrets from the waters lapping the boat’s edge.

We joined the Venetian scene, sidling up to the bar with the locals in a crowded osteria, ordering cichettia and prosecco  as the throngs of day-tourists give way to locals and die-hards here for the night.   We scored that flower bedecked table in the trattoria window, savoring our over-priced pasta and waving to the gondoliers as they glided by.

By day, we discovered the secrets of Doge’s Palace, wandering behind the locked doors and gilded halls into the prisons and torture chambers of another era.  We ducked down to pass through the tiny doorways into Casanova’s cell, peered through the windows high above the canal, and walked the path across the Bridge of Sighs.  Having walked the prisoners’ death path above, we carefully navigated around the two pillars in the Square, heeding the Venetian belief that it’s bad luck to walk between them, the spot of so many executions long ago.  (Ironic, we thought, that it’s between those pillars that the most entrepreneurial souvenir vendors choose to hawk their wares.)

Half a world away, a magical, decaying, delightful place.  It spoke to me, one of those spots a notch above all the other magical, wonderful places we’re lucky enough to visit.   In a crazy, chaotic world – one currently struggling with bomb plots in Times Square, volcanic ash spreading across Europe, and economic collapse around the globe – Venice holds fast.  Carnival masks, Murano’s blown glass, gondolier families, secrets from the past all woven together in a tiny little city confidently shimmering in its own demise.   Perhaps they know something we don’t.

May 1, 2010


Seems that along with passport proficiency and multi-lingual communications, extended travel – particularly when traveling with all your stuff in one small bag on your back — creates some other basic life skills.  Sacagawea and Dundee cut a deal at lunch a few days ago.

“Ugh!  Stains on my favorite shirt again.  I gotta get ‘em out,” Dundee whined, exasperated, since laundry day wasn’t even on the horizon.

“Well.   My favorite shirt needs fixing,” Sacagawea retorted, “the one that’s ripped and I haven’t been able to wear for weeks.” (An exaggeration, I’m pretty sure, but she had to make a point.)  I figured that was my cue, the point where Mom parachutes in with the solution and all’s well.  Fortunately, I was chewing, so my parachute jump would have to wait  just a few more seconds.

“Tell you what,” she said.  “I’ll spot treat your shirt if you’ll sew up mine.”

“Deal!”  he replied. Seems we’ve developed specialties – niche skills for which we’re appreciated.  His, sewing  repairs.  Hers, laundry and spot treating.  Not bad.

Issue resolved. Smiles all around.   And I had absolutely nothing to do with it.  Note to self:  Remember to keep my mouth shut more often.