Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Chaque petit détail joue un rôle"

The gray clouds purged themselves once more today as the City of Lights remained dimmed and dampened by the rain that, like me, hung around for another day.  

The chill of fall was in the air as the breeze blew through the City, no sun to warm it's gentle Scarves and trench coats were as normal a sight as, say, long lines at the Eiffel Tower. 

Aside from the positive aspect of getting to spend an extra day in Paris, there was the excitement of what that extra meant for me. If you've kept up with these adventures of a solo traveler (I finished reading The Phantom of the Opera during my crépe and cafè crème this morning), you know that the Water Lillies rooms in the Musée de l'Orangerie were closed through 12 Septembre. If you've seen your calendar today you know it's 13 Septembre. That guessed it...I got to see the Water Lillies. As frustrating as a cancelled flight can be, this circumstance certainly had more than one upside. 

I was not prepared for the beauty that awaited me just beyond the concrete opening that led to the two oval rooms that housed the Lillies. The cold gray of the sky -- and the structure's interior -- gave way to the delicate warmth of Monet's Water Lillies as they hung, panoramic around the rooms, forever caught in their tranquil grace. Morning. Afternoon. Evening. There is color. And then there is Monet's use of color. Dark purples, sea green-blues, blue-greens, sea foam green, burgundy, brilliant blue, pink, yellow. Blends. Swirls. Up close you can see the brush strokes and maybe not quite put into focus the picture. But stepping away brings it all together. One can actually see ripples in the water. There's truth, illusion, and beauty from a distance. 

I was like a child on Christmas morning; running into the family room, starring at all the packages under the tree. I walked round and round the oval rooms, marveling at what hung in front of me. My eyes observed and absorbed. I soaked in it and soaked it in. Does it get any better than seeing art hanging in the rooms it which it was designed to hang? The scope and size of these paintings was unlike anything I can recall seeing before. I've seen large painings, but nothing quite as majestic. Even with the lack of skylight illumination (gray skies be damned) they were stunning.

Downstairs there was a long wall full of Renoir. That place. That museum. It was the one that inspired me. The pieces were hung in the open (no protective glass Mona) for close examination (no protective stanchions, Venus). The paintings seemed truly to be art for the people; for us, the visitors, to admire and enjoy. 

Matisse was there. And Picasso; Cézanne. Works by great artists that were close enough to touch. (That action would be discouraged and frowned upon.) 

I often find myself wondering why some art is considered so fabulous or important. Then I remember beauty is in the eye of the beholder and an artist's particular style can change the art form. Not everyone can do what some of these artists did. Not everyone can sing, dance, act, or write. Not everyone can paint. Not everyone can be a creative artist. 

To be an artist takes vulnerability. One has to put himself -- his vision, his point of view -- on display for all the world to admire, gawk at, or possibly, loathe. We humans are fickle, opinionated creatures. We can love you one minute then leave you the next. We might then have a change of heart and find a reason you were important all along. Or maybe we just pretend you never really mattered at all. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. And opinions, positive and negative, really don't matter as long as the artist is pleased with his finished product.

Upon exiting Musée de l'Orangerie, the sun had broken through the gray clouds. Even as sprinkles continued to fall from the stranglers, patches of blue sky were beginning to reveal themselves, daring you not to see them. "Look up! Look. Up."

Art dares you to see it. It challenges you. It makes you question what you're seeing, reading, watching. It begs you to feel something. Like any artist, the Universe is no different. It begs you to open your eyes and see, inhale deeply and smell, savor the taste of the wine, hear the music in the sounds around you.

I accepted your challenge, dear Universe. I survived the rain and smiled at the sunshine and blue sky. I saw it. I knew how happy I should be and I was. I listened, and I savored. 

Merci, Paris pour le plaisir de votre compagnie.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

"Il est notre temps ici-bas."

The sound of the steamer heating the milk was loud. Almost overwhelming. Yet perfect noise for the scene in which I was a background player. The setting: a café in Paris (Café du Marche des Enfants Rouges). The time: a Septembre day in the 21st Century. 

The solo traveler took himself on a stroll down the rain soaked streets of Paris in search of a neighborhood café to enjoy a bit of vin rouge and fromage. The rain fell in fits and spurts from the gray clouds that hovered above the City of Lights. 

It was all about atmosphere. The rain. The café. Paris. It was all about being alive in that particular moment and being aware of how happy I was. I was eating cheese, drinking wine, and (still) reading The Phantom of the Opera. It was heaven on Earth. Time didn't matter. There was no where to be; no work to be done; no appointments to keep; no agenda whatsoever. This was my time. To quote from The Goonies: "It's our time down here." 

What led me to that moment in the café was something that would normally have sent me down a panic spiral, but ended up being something that I had to Be An Adult and handle. And once it was "...handled" (thank you, Olivia Pope) I was able to relax and enjoy the time still in front of me.

This morning I woke up around 8am and had an alert from Expedia that I could now check in for my flight. Departing Paris tomorrow afternoon (Sunday, 9/13 @ 2pm) en route to JFK in New York City. The check in went beautifully; smoothe. Passport number entered. Name confirmed. Flight number and time confirmed. Boarding pass sent to mobile. I was checked in. It was time to get up and get on with my final day in Paris. 

I showered and dressed and took myself out into the sprinkling rain of the morning on a journey toward Père Lachaise Cemetery. As you know, a Metro snafu and a stop at Hermès deterred me long enough to miss my opportunity to walk through Père Lachaise yesterday. No regrets!! Those Hermès purchases were so worth it! So today, even though it was raining, I was determined to walk through this City of the Dead. Honestly, it was a pretty cool idea to me to walk through the cemetery under the cover of gray rain clouds. It seemed the right atmospheric setting for an eerie mood of melancholy. About halfway to the cemetery -- a near two mile walk -- I received an email from Air France followed quickly by an email from Expedia. I didn't think anything about either email. I was checked in; confirmed. The flight was scheduled to depart on time. Eventually, however, something told me to look at the email. "Following an operational problem, we regret to inform you that we were not able to accommodate you on your original flight. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience." Well, those are not the words a man wants to hear in a foreign country, so far from home, on the day before his departure back to home, while trying to enjoy his cafè crème and stay under his umbrella at the same time. I felt the panic rise. Then I realized I needed to take care of this situation. According to the email, I was already booked on another flight departing on Monday morning. Okay. So I didn't need to panic about that. And on the plus side, I was getting one more day in Paris. I continued walking toward Père Lachaise Cemetery until I realized that I would not enjoy the stroll at all until this extra day wrench that was thrown into my spinning wheel of life was taken care of completely. I immediately turned around and walked back to the hotel. Today didn't seem to be the day to commune with the dead either. I had to find out if the hotel could accommodate me for one more night. I had to notify the private car service scheduled to transfer me to the airport tomorrow morning. Changes had to be made. The largest one -- the flight -- having already been changed for me. 

It turned out that the hotel could accommodate me even though it meant switching rooms for the last night. That's not really that big of a deal. So, I checked that off the list. The concierge at my hotel called my car service for me and told them of my change and ended the call with a "Merci" to them and a "You're all set" to me. Of course, I emailed the car service anyway just to give the details in writing and to have a confirmation of the change myself. I'm used to having everything in writing. It's hard to trust that it's just going to happen. Yes, I have trust issues. "Who are you to judge me?" (Yes, I'm using the Dorothy Zbornak quote a second time this week.) 

New flight booked: check. One more night at the hotel reserved: check. Car service pick up day and time changed: check. An extra day in Paris: OUI!

Hence the cafè, the vin rouge, the fromage, and The Phantom

To sit in a café in Paris and read or write is a most exhilarating experience for me. Neither seems out of place surrounded by conversations, laughter, wine and coffee consumption. And the cigarette smoke. I can't leave out the smokers. They are part of the Paris café atmosphere; the fabric of the City. Without them sitting at the café tables that line the sidewalks of the café fronts, the cafés wouldn't quit feel the same. This normal part of life in Paris would be so detested and frowned upon in New York City. I can hear the old men complaining now. How is it that the French smoke more and enjoy more wine than we Americans yet live longer? Maybe they've got it right. Eat, drink, and be merry...and work less. Enjoy life! Yes, maybe they've figured something out that we're too busy working to realize.  

One of my favorite people in the world -- a former roommate, and teacher when I was in desperate need of emotional growth -- moved to Washington D. C. seven years ago. I don't think we've seen each other since. We live four hours apart and never see each other. How ridiculous is that? She saw one of my Facebook posts this week about Paris and realized I was actually currently on holiday there. She reached out with a comment on a picture I'd posted that she was traveling to Paris by speed train from Barcelona the next day. What are the odds? This beautiful, young-spirited, wise, centered, happy, spiritual woman and I got to reconnect in Paris over dinner and a bottle of wine. As we played catch up after seven years (it didn't even seem like a day we fell back into our flow so quickly) I became aware of the signage outside the window across the street. We could have been getting reacquainted in the West Village for the way the street looked. But we weren't. We were around the world, on another continent, in a bistro in Paris. Two old (don't get snarky) friends telling stories about life as it is and life as we knew it.

The day that could have been didn't end up being the day that was. The crises were averted. The rain eventually ended. Words were read, written, and spoken. Time was enjoyed, not wasted, in a café. And divine intervention brought someone back into my life at a moment when I least expected it. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Où le Bossu sonne le glas et la couleur du luxe est orange

A feeling of contentment washed over me as I waited in line to buy a ticket to go inside Notre-Dame. It was peaceful in the shade as I leaned up against the concrete that held the spike-topped wrought iron fence surrounding the Cathedral. Tourists were wandering around looking at their maps. Locals were going about their afternoon business. I stood observing. Life was hustle, bustle, and wait in line in my vicinity. A beggar woman straight out of that other Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, hobbled by with her crutch and cup, begging for change. The sounds of City life were alive all around me: sirens, traffic, chatter, Cathedral bells. After four days, I know where I am when I wake up, but it still seems so surreal to be here. 

Italian speakers to my left. Spanish speakers to my right. I recognized their language as they spoke to each other, but none of us spoke each other's. Gestures and single words helped us find common ground for communication. You know, you can't just speak louder to try to communicate. You've got to break it down and find other ways. It's a challenge. I did my best to figure out how. I was outside of my box; my comfort zone. It's supposed to be a good thing. It's supposed to help me grow. I think it has. I've tried to take stock every now and then and assess myself: how is my patience; tolerance; courage? Is my fuse quick or slow? At home I would say my fuse is much quicker than it has been here. I'm much quicker to lose patience there. In my line of work, I will be interested to see how this vacation translates when I'm back behind that glass selling those tickets to people who are visiting, merely trying to enjoy their experience in New York City. The amount of people I've encountered who have shown me kindness have greatly added to my experience. Hopefully I'll carry that home with me and remember the people who helped with a smile instead of doing it begrudgingly.

One has to accept himself. One has to be able to see the reflection in the mirror and stare into the eyes staring back at him and accept the failings, shortcomings, successes, idiosyncrasies that he knows are hidden beneath the surface. Sometimes I see him and I accept him even though I don't like him. Other times I stare at him and only see the superficial. I'm a tourist in a foreign country...alone. As strange as it sounds, I always try to look like I belong wherever I am even though one of my strongest desires is to stand out from the crowd. I like to be noticed; to be different than everyone else; to be chic, stylish, and unique. However, I have had to fight to accept that what makes me stand out in Paris is the fact that I am a tourist...well, my clothes, shoes, accessories, and personality do come into play also, but... I haven't really figured out what makes me so uncomfortable with being perceived as a tourist. Guess it's that not being in control of the unknown thing that plays hard and fast with my ability to function. My name is Michael and I'm a tourist. This City is filled with us. "Soap opera says One Life To Live." I'm living, I'm living!! To accept this me who is experiencing himself as a solo traveler is a challenge I've taken on even if I don't always like the result of my actions.

Two hours of observing, pondering, and sitting with myself (and my non English speaking companions) later I was finally at the front the line and my passage into the "symbol of medieval Paris" was about to begin. 

The views were, in a word, breathtaking. So were the stairs that I had to climb to get to the top so I could see those views. Merde! I don't know that any amount of physical training would prepare one for those stairs that spiraled to the top, getting more and more narrow the higher I went. I was breathless for two reasons (the views, the stairs). Merde! (It bears repeating). The view of Paris from atop Notre-Dame was C'est magnifique!! I marveled at the City laid out before me. I guess I've done the same thing anytime I've been high enough to see NYC spread out in all of her concrete and steel glory. For this view, however, the pinpoints of the Chrysler Building and One World Trade were replaced by the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacré-Coeur, and the Seine. "Spectacular Spectacular"! 

The spiral back down was less of a workout for the legs, although my right one was quivering a bit (this vacation has include a lot of walking. "Who are you to judge me?"). I stopped across the street for a tourist-priced café crème and my first street vendor crépe made with what all you people kept telling me to try...Nutella! Mon Dieu! (OMG for the Anglophiles.) It was amazing: rich, creamy, almost too much so to consume. Fear not. I ate the whole thing. "He likes it. Hey Mikey!" Sitting outside at the café, I met a lovely couple from Texas, Karen and Kent, who had enjoyed an early morning bike tour around Paris. They were kind and open and I'm so glad that I introduced myself after hearing their English. It was nice to have a conversation without worrying about the translation. 

I next set off to visit the dead at Père Lachaise Cemetery. After visiting a church, a cemetery seemed liked the logical sequel. The final resting place of Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein (with the unmarked grave of her lover Alice B. Toklas next to her), Chopin, Colette, Molière, even Jim Morrison, was a must see on my list the minute I knew I was going to visit Paris. It may seem macabre for some, but for me a cemetery is one of the most interesting places to wander/wonder in. Take a stroll through one and look at the age of the stones, how long the people lived, how long they've been dead. There is so much history right there beneath your feet. I was never one for history in school, but walking through a cemetery can open your eyes to the the lives of people who arrived and left before you got here. Cemeteries really are quite beautiful Cities of the Dead.

I didn't make it to Père Lachaise Cemetery next, however. I made a snafu that I still haven't quite figured out with the Metro after I finished the crêpe. I started walking in the direction of my hotel and found myself lost then back on track then right near a Metro stop. Even though I was now back on the right track I thought that instead of walking back to the hotel I should save a little time and get on the Metro and take myself nearer to Père Lachaise Cemetery. It seemed a better choice than if I walked back to the hotel and then navigated from there. I still don't know what coordinates I put into my Paris Metro app, but I followed them to the tee and found myself smack in the middle of Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Seriously?!? I couldn't imagine this location was going to have me anywhere near a cemetery even if I had to walk a short distance. Can you imagine a cemetery just off Fifth or Madison? Or, God forbid, 42nd Street? I couldn't get my Google maps app to load my route (Verizon has not made me a happy customer during this trip) so I was kind of stuck wondering what to do, where to go from there. Then it struck me. I wanted to find Hermès. I hadn't found it the day I'd wondered down the Champs-Élysées. One of my map apps was working and told me it was merely across the street and down a side road. I quickly forgot about my trip to see where the dead were resting and made my way toward the gleaming orange of luxury leather goods...and scarves. 

There was no champagne offered to me at Hermès Paris like at Saint Laurent Paris, but that didn't change the fantastic experience one bit. Alexandra was perfect for me. She spoke a bit of English and not once made me feel inadequate when I used my French with her. Okay, some might say it's her job to be nice because she's working on commission. Who cares. I connected with her and she connected to my excitement at being in the store and we fit together like Cinderella and that glass slipper. On a side note: there were some beautiful men, in suits (IN SUITS!) working, whose attention I would have enjoyed, but knowing myself as I do (remember I'm looking at the eyes staring back at me in that mirror) I know I would have been a little timid, a little coquettish with them. Handsome men in suits put me a flutter in all kinds of ways. So while I was happy to be able to observe them while I waited, Alexandra was perfect for me. 

I knew I wanted the classic "H" belt buckle. It screams Hermès to me. When I see it, I know. The only choice, for me, was silver for the buckle. Classic. I wanted something in Hermès-orange and would have purchased the reversible orange/black if they had had my size. Alas, they did not. What I went for was a beautiful blue, that should coordinate beautifully with my Cole Haan blue Chukkas, which reverses to black. I have a black belt already and also a blue belt, so I didn't really need this belt. But it's a beautiful belt and the leather is in a word...supple. And it has the status symbol "H" buckle. And it's pretty! Hi, my name is Michael and I'm a label whore. 

Alexandra helped me figure out the perfect size belt. Then she helped me choose the perfect colored enamel bracelet. I didn't want black or brown. I wanted orange. Hermès-orange! The orange one was a little too tight on my wrist, though. Not to be deterred, Alexandra brought out a beautiful deep red-colored enamel bracelet with a more modern "H" clasp than the classic "H" of the buckle. It was brushed silver instead of shiny. I would have taken the shiny in a heartbeat, but as I said it didn't fit. Alexandra had one more thought. I was finding the idea of the deep red enamel intriguing, but she wanted to check her inventory for the possible arrival of the more pumpkin shaded orange-colored enamel with the brushed silver clasp. While she was checking the inventory I met a lovely couple from North Carolina. The accent was unmistakably from "back home" and I couldn't resist an introduction. Super nice people. Again, so glad I said hello.

I had resigned myself to the idea of buying the deep red-colored enamel bracelet if the more muted orange one was not in stock. I needn't have worried at all. It was in stock. She came back to me wearing a large smile and I knew. It was the perfect choice. Alexandra, the belt, the buckle, the bracelet...all things meant for Michael at that particular moment. 

I might never have purchased a piece of Hermès in New York City no matter how badly I wanted to. But in Paris, the only option was immediately clear. I provided the man at the register with my Venture card and signed my name to the slip. 

The list of things I wanted to see on this trip included touristy things: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, Versailles, Notre Dame, Palaise Garnier, Père Lachaise Cemetery (ok, maybe that last one's not for every tourist, but it is listed in my guidebook). But it also included Louis Vuitton, Ladurée, Chanel, Dior, and Hermès. As I review the week so far, I seem to have put a check mark next to all but one of these. 

Maybe I'll see that city of the dead tomorrow if it doesn't rain. As for tonight, I tried foie gras. Si bon!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Marcher où les rois (et reines) ont Tread

I find that the more I'm in a routine the more I feel part of the fabric, the world, the community. I don't feel Parisian. That's not what I'm saying. That would be laughable after three days. But I do feel more confident in my choices and abilities now after those three days. At least more so than when I arrived, a wide-eyed American, fresh off the plane for his first visit to Europe. 

I walk to the same Metro stop every day. I can connect to anywhere I want to go from that stop. I walk the same path, pass the same shops, and many of the same people each day. (Sounds a little bit like home, non?) I haven't started saying Bonjour on the street (I'm not sure that would seem anything but an intrusion), but with the recognition comes a comfort, a confidence...all gained by my routine. Of course, routines can be bad. They can be safe. They can mean you're in a rut. They might show you that you're too comfortable and need to shake things up a bit. 

I tend to need to shake things up a little more than a bit. I've travelled to Paris alone so I think I'm shaking...maybe even stirring...things up a lot. But in the shaking I've found a routine that gives me a sense of comfort and the necessary confidence to move forward with this experience. I guess sometimes we all need a routine. 

All that said, today was a day for trying, yet again, something new. This vacation might have its routines, but there is also something new, with total uncertainty, thrown in every day. I feel secure enough in my ability to navigate the Metro now. (The MTA should take some lessons in cleanliness, punctuality, regularity, and general efficiency from the French.) So today was the day I challenged myself to the RER (the French version of NYC's Metro North or LIRR) and took a trip outside of the City to Versailles. 

Do you ever look around and take notice of the people on the plane with you? Or the train when you're on vacation where the public transportation is a subway system? They are your unknown traveling companions. They're on the journey with you. As for the people on my RER today, many of them were on their way to experience Versailles, along with me, for the first time. Many of us were sharing an experience without even sharing a language.  

Those of you Keeping Up With this non Kardashian know that I had a dilemma with the ticket line at the Louvre yesterday. Well, today I asked the question and joined the line. It seems, however that I asked the wrong question. I asked if I was in the line for entrance to the Palace. The reply from my very-little-English-speaking responder was, "Yes." What I should have asked was if the people in the line already had tickets. I was in the line for entrance to the Palace, however, I was in the line with people who already had tickets. We couldn't buy  tickets once we got to the front. It wasn't a complete waste of time. I ran quickly to the short line for buying tickets, met some lovely people from Canada who had done the same thing as I, bought my ticket, then bypassed the long line with a VIP pass given to me by a lovely Palace security employee when she saw that I had waited in the wrong line. Score! Viva la France!

If I thought the Palaise Garnier was opulent and grand that was before I visited the Palace of Versailles. To live in this Palace as royalty, or family of (King's mother, sir?), or companions of (Ladies in Waiting, queens?), with grace and manners, and a bit of intrigue and mischief on the side, must have been, well, normal, I guess for the people who lived there. I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like to attend a party at the Palace let alone live there. 

Walking in the same steps (on the staircase, down the hallway, through the rooms) where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette walked is another surreal moment. It's part of the history of the world. Even if you're familiarity with Marie-Antoinette goes no further than Sophia Coppola's intriguing, fun, exciting film starring Kirsten Dunst, you have to know that this Palace is the stuff of dreams and fantasies. I mean even the word Versailles conjures ideas of some kind of dream world that saying Arlington can't conjure. Go ahead say it. Versailles! It's a little tingly, right? The former inhabitants are now merely images and stories in the pages of history books. And because of that history, walking through the rooms of that Palace was a thrilling moment. So it's 2015 and they've been dead for more than two centuries. So what. They once were there: they lived there, ate there, slept there,...had sex and gave birth there. 

To stroll through the modern day version of the gardens that Marie-Antoinette herself must have strolled through -- wearing her panniers -- brought to mind a stroll through the gardens in which The Marquise de Merteuil and company might have engaged in in Les Liaisons Dangeruese. Effortless late afternoon strolls in the crisp Septembre air to cool oneself after the heat of the day had subsided. Imagine the fanning fans. The perfume wafting on the breeze. Imagine the conversations and laughter; the gossip. Imagine the stolen kisses behind the high hedges that hid one from the prying eyes back at the Palace. I could imagine it all as I sat in the shade of one of those hedges in the Palace gardens. 

The Estate of Versailles -- the Palace, the Petit Trianon, and the Grand Trianon -- was just about too much opulence and French decadence for one to consume in a day. (But I did it!) The music rooms, the bedchambers, the rooms that used to be this but then became that depending on who used them during any given reign. They are beautiful palaces for sure. They reminded me of the White Elephants in Newport, RI, built by the wealthy Americans of the Gilded Age. They're lovely, grand palaces but they aren't very inviting. They're cold. The palaces of Versailles (especially the Petit Trianon) are cold if beautiful structures. They hold no idea of warmth that one might associate with a home. I don't mean literal heat. I mean the comfort and livability of ones home. Imagine going home to the house you grew up in or to visit your grandmother. Now imagine one of these palaces was that place. I guess it's all relative if that's the home you know. I could imagine a fantastic game of hide-and-seek, but running down the halls made of stone in the Petit Trianon would require sock covered feet and absolute silence (no laughing while trying to not be discovered either) otherwise the echo would give you away.

After a slight snafu with the Metro when trying to get back to Paris (the Metro ticket from my carnet (10 Metro tickets) didn't work. Turns out I needed an RER ticket when beginning the journey via RER instead of Metro) I got on the train. It was every-seat-taken-standing-room-only like the LIRR when I get on in Sayville every year when returning from Fire Island. It was, of course, rush hour when I reached the Metro. The first train was incredibly crowded. I decided to wait. (I would never do that in New York City.) Within two minutes there was another train. There's that regularity and efficiency showing itself again. I continued to stand, holding on to the pole supported and surrounded by a car full of Parisians. Most excitingly, many of them were the gorgeous Parisian men that I've become so infatuated with on this trip. Bonjour, Monsieur. 

Maintenant, si cela ne vous dérange pas, mes jambes sont fatiguées et je besoin d'un peu de vin!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Un musée, un jardin et un opéra sans un fantôme

The difference was, instead of mariachi music he played an accordion. The sound immediately Parisian, reminding me of Woody Allan's soundtrack to Midnight in Paris. Somehow, even though it was a morning commute, the sound of the accordion was less irritating than the sound of the mariachi music I so often encounter on the subway in New York City. Of course, observing the faces of the locals, I might conclude that the sound of an accordion in Paris is viewed much the same as the mariachi band that interrupts what might otherwise be a quiet commute in NYC. 

After yesterday's lovely, wandering, stroll of an experience, today begged for a visit to the Louvre. Two days was long enough to wait to say hello to Mona and the Venus de Milo.

The line was long to buy tickets but seemed to move quickly. I'm a New Yorker. I hate waiting in line, but I'm used to it. Today's fun fact about lines is: know what line you're waiting in. I thought I was in the line to buy tickets. I didn't ask anyone, but observed those waiting in the line and made the decision that I had made the correct choice. When I finally got to the stanchions I began to second guess myself. Turns out, I was in the right line. But having abandoned my position to ask if I was in the right line, I had to find myself back at the end of a line that had tripled in length since I first joined it. The lesson here is: either ask first or trust yourself. 

Before actually buying my ticket and entering the famous Musée du Louvre, I had to have coffee. My head was already beginning to pound. I knew I wouldn't enjoy my first time with Mona if I didn't have the coffee to ward off the caffeine headache. Damn caffeine! Throwing all dietary and personal training restrictions aside I had another Pain au chocolat. Remember yesterday? I'm in Paris. I might as well indulge. My trainer wants me too. Of course, he knows he's going to get paid to help me work it off when I get back to the States. Then the Pain won't be chocolat as much as just "pain."

The hum of the milling crowd filled the cavernous space like the sound of worker bees in their hive. All the different languages rising together to blend into one human-made vibration. 

Let me talk about that word cavernous. Has there ever been a truer truth spoken? Especially when referring to the Louvre? I was lost, wandering around in the wrong direction, looping back on myself for the first 15 minutes. If I'd been dropping bread crumbs I would have been seeing them over and over, albeit trampled to flatness by the throng of people wandering about just like I. 

Finally I did what I had to do: ask. I was in the wrong wing of the Musée...completely. I was never going to find Mona in that wing no matter how much I stared at my map and tried to figure out where she was compared to where I was. We would have been two ships that never passed in the night. Once I was in the correct wing it wasn't difficult to find her. There were signs posted with arrows pointing me in her direction. She is pretty popular for a relatively plain girl. I saw the crowds before I actually saw her. I walked past them then turned to join them in their direction of vision. You can't really get close to her. And admiring up close is not really an option. I'll admire my photographs up close. I had been told she would be smaller than I thought. Honestly, she was bigger than I had imagined her smallness to be. She probably would have been exactly the size I imagined if I hadn't expected a tiny portrait that made one question the hype. All of that said, no matter her size, her beauty or plainness, there's something exhilarating about seeing her in person. She doesn't quite breathe, but you get the sense that she was once alive, captured in a moment that countless people, for nearly five centuries have admired. I have always questioned why this piece is so renowned, but really the why doesn't matter. She is and now I've seen her smile. 

Venus de Milo was a little easier to find after I'd gotten acquainted with the signs that pointed attendees in the direction of the most popular pieces of art in the Musée. She was a little more breathtaking. On par with the Eiffel Tower. I turned the corner and there she was. Yes, I gasped! The crowds formed a semi-circle in front of her, but I had no trouble seeing Aphrodite -- who she is believed to be -- in her statuesque, armless beauty. I found myself much more interested in the sculptures than the paintings. Perfect specimen's captured forever in marble. The male statutes were so chiseled: perfect pecs, flat stomach's (some with abs), bubble butts. If there was a Grindr in Ancient Greece, some of these men would have been the belle's of the ball. Seriously. And beautiful, to get back on track. 

Just when I thought I'd actually figured it out, I actually had. I navigated myself straight to the wing that held the Egyptian sarcophagi. With a little patience and little bit a putting myself inside the map (à la Joey on Friends in London) I found what I was looking for all by myself.  

Continuing to walk forward I stumbled upon a treasure trove of histoire magnifique. The objets d'art De Louis XIV à Louis XVI. The furniture, the tapestries, the chandeliers, the harpsichord, the harp, the porcelain, the silver service. The colors and designs opulent and grand. These objets also included pieces of porcelain service, as well as personal effects (like the travel kit), belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette. Marie figgin' Antoinette. Her actual stuff. What? Yo!

My stroll through Le jardin des Tuileries reminded me of strolling the Mall in Central Park: the water sellers were there, the sellers of art (Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe drawings anyone) and selfie sticks. One could even buy a miniature of the Eiffel Tower. There was no tree canopy like the Mall, though. The sun shown down from the blue, nearly cloudless, sky as I walked down the, what shall I call it, pedestrian thoroughfare?, gritty with pummeled rocks and finely milled dirt(?) and sand(?) that left my shoes covered in a layer of dust. It was flanked on either side by lush green lawns and trees with topiary and flowers thrown in the design for color, artistry, and beauty. One could see the tops of what I assume were immeubles d'appartements on either side much like in Central Park. It's that reminder that you're in a large city even though you're surrounded by nature. There was a fountain in the center surrounded by those seeking a respite to enjoy the sunshine. I myself took a small respite after walking around the Louvre for three hours and sat down on an empty chair in the shade of a tree and read about half a chapter in The Phantom Of the Opera. Seems apropos doesn't it? I mean I am in Paris. Oddly enough, I started reading the novel before I even booked my trip; before the trip was even a thought. I've had it since 1993 so I figured it was about time I read the real story instead of allowing Andrew Lloyd Webber's version be the only version I know.   

My visit to Musée de l'Orangerie was a non entry. It seems that the rooms housing Monet's Water Lilies is closed from 31 August through 12 September. I leave on the 13th. Ah well. I guess I'll just have to return to Paris for a peek at the Water Lilies that Monet captured at various times of day and remain his most well known artistic creations. 

Remember the musical Urinetown? The song "It's a Privilege to Pee"? Art imitates life imitates art. At the end of Le jardin des Tuileries there was a toilette. I hadn't had more than my coffee from my pre Louvre entry, but I did need to pee. That'll be ,70€ and the first time I've ever paid for the privilege. It was totally worth it. 

Picture it. Paris. 2015. I'm sitting on the steps of the Palaise Garnier (AKA the Paris Opera House that is the setting for The Phantom of the Opera), reading The Phantom of the Opera. I finished that chapter I started back in the Tuileries. Then...I went inside. That was an unqualified surreal moment. How do I even begin to describe the splendid grandeur? I was speechless. It was C'est magnifique! Regardless of the fictional Phantom of Gaston Leroux's story, one knows that all theatres have their ghosts and I can imagine the Palaise Garnier is no different. If only these walls could talk imagine the stories they could tell. 

I took a 7pm stroll to the Seine. I just sat, observed, and absorbed. There's beauty all around. Of course, I wonder if you live here if you still see it. I find myself, after 18 years, still discovering beauty amidst the mundane in New York City. It's around every corner you don't visit every day. The trick is finding it around those corners too.

Mona wanted to say hi, but all she could do was smile from behind the glass. Aphrodite desperately wanted to wave, but, well, you know how that goes when you have no arms. The walls couldn't talk but thankfully I can type so you get to hear my story. 

Le voyage se poursuit!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Les virages et Stepping l'intérieur

I turned the corner and gasped. She loomed in front of me. I was caught unawares and, frankly, was not prepared for the rush of emotion. I couldn't keep myself from smiling. I was seeing her in person for the first time. This mythic creature from photographs and films. This erection of iron from 1889. The epitome of the "art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living," so said Monsieur Eiffel back in 1885. Today it stands as major a tourist destination in Paris as the Empire State Building is in New York City. Of course I'm referring to the Eiffel Tower. 

Rife with pigeons and tourists alike, it was not that different from the melting pot of colors and languages that one would find near, I'm assuming, any major city's major attraction. I stared. It was okay to stare. She likes it. I looked up from directly underneath and marveled. I was the tourist with his chic touristy-ness on display. I ordered a café crème and Pain au chocolat and made my way to a park bench to sip, eat, and ponder the beauty in front of me. 

I could have been in any park anywhere. I could have been in New York City. There were certainly enough pecking pigeons hovering around waiting for that one crumb I didn't drop. There were certainly enough pedi-cabs cycling by. There were certainly enough people sitting on benches, going about their day. I wasn't anywhere else though. I was in a park in Paris. Sipping coffee on a park bench with the Eiffel Tower majestically, proudly standing in front of me. If you think I cried you're almost right. The tears welled up but I wouldn't let them fall. 

The sights (kids hanging out on the sidewalk in clusters before heading home from wherever they've been, people walking into and out of the Metro, jaywalking) and sounds (traffic, horns, jackhammers) were much like those in New York City. I don't know what I was expecting, but we're all the same, we humans. We interact the same. We laugh the same. We beg on the Metro the same. We may speak different languages, but the results are translatable. You don't even need an app. Just use use your eyes and ears. 

Visiting the Arc de Triomphe was, for me, much more on par with seeing, say, the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. I love the fountain. It's one of my favorite spots in the park, but it's just something beautiful to see. The Arc de Triomphe was a monument on my Must See list, but it wasn't as breathtaking as the Eiffel Tower. I didn't gasp when it came into view as I exited the Metro. I smiled. I mean, let me be honest, I was actually in its presence so that was pretty cool. But it wasn't the same experience, for me, as turning that corner and the Eiffel Tower standing in front of me. I did love the rotary surrounding the Arc de Triomphe and how one doesn't have to cross the traffic to get to it. I seriously stood there wondering how I was going to get across. I couldn't find a pattern for the traffic that didn't always have cars moving in that circle. The Parisians were smart enough to construct an underground walkway. Clever. Not saying we Americans wouldn't do that, just wondering if it might be an afterthought instead of a forethought. I'm just saying the concept was pretty brilliant. Traffic continues to flow and pedestrians don't have to be "en garde" for their lives. 

My stroll down the Champs-Élysées (a little Fifth/Madison Avenues with a little bit of 42nd Street thrown in to give everyone a chance) was the kind of stroll that raises the heart rate even though it's merely a stroll. When you stumble upon Louis Vuitton and Ladurée even though you can visit them anytime in their locations in New York City on Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue respectively, it's somehow different to see them in their country of origin. One must participate in the joy this brings either by taking photos, window shopping, stepping inside to experience the atmosphere, or buying the set of six macarons, which include The Marie Antoinette flavor, which I've not seen available in New York City. Although, it could be available at this moment as these are the Les macarons--Septembre.

When I arrived at what appeared to be the end of the Champs-Élysées I was a little puzzled. I hadn't seen Chanel or Dior yet. I was sure they each had a boutique located on the Champs-Élysées. Then I turned the corner (I seem to be turning a lot of corners today) onto Avenue Montaigne. It was a cloudy day in Paris, but the fashion gods shined their sun rays down on me because there they were, illuminated and lining the Avenue Montaigne: boutiques for Dolce & Gabbana, Saint Laurent, Fendi, Marni, Celine, Chanel, Givenchy, Dior, Valentino. It was the avenue of gay-man-fashionista dreams. Hell, even Marlene Dietrich used to live on Avenue Montaigne.

After wandering down the Avenue for minutes, hours(?), just taking it all in, I went back to Saint Laurent. I wanted to go inside, but started to walk past. Then I remembered that I wanted to participate. I wanted to be me in Paris. I wanted to go inside the store. So, I stopped myself. I stepped inside the door. I asked the portier, "May I," and he preceded, in English, to point me in the direction of accessories and ready-to-wear for women and the collection for men, which was upstairs. It was while perusing the accessories for women that I not only recognized the pink of my Chuck Taylor's (I was wearing them) in the leather bags and wallets on display in front of me, but I recognized former French Vogue editor, and founder of CR Fashion Book, Carine Roitfeld shopping in the store. That was a surreal moment. She's a beautiful older woman whose face looks the same in the magazines as it does in person. I wanted a selfie with her but maintained restraint and decorum. I was in the flagship store of Yves Saint Laurent, ok. No need to go off the rails. 

Upstairs I encountered the lovely Anna. She accepted my French, but recognized me as American. She spoke just enough English for us to communicate almost effortlessly. While discussing with me a particular wallet that I took a liking to but did not need (I have a recently purchase Louis Vuitton so this would have been wallet excess just for the excess), she offered me a glass of champagne. Who was I to say no. I mean, I recently made myself say yes in Tiffany & Co in New York City. I wasn't about to give pause to saying yes in Saint Laurent in Paris. I drank a glass of Champagne rosé while shopping in Saint Laurent. You bet your ass I did! After I admired the clothes, the wallets, and the sunglasses I decided that I couldn't walk out of the boutique without a pair of love-at-first-sight the sunglasses. They're part of the fall collection and they fit my face beautifully. That was the moment that I nearly cried. I love Yves Saint Laurent. To purchase a YSL accessory from the flagship Paris boutique was almost to much joy to contain. I'm certain that being in the Paris...allowed me to throw all caution (and thought of price) to the wind. But I don't care. The price was actually not an issue. The moment, however, was spectacular and can never be recaptured. The memory of the purchase of my first piece of YSL with forever be a cherished memory. 

Running on adrenaline, excitement, and the fumes of that Pain au chocolat consumed earlier in the day, I took myself toward "home" and the necessity of food and desire for wine. Côtes du Rhône, anyone? Oui!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Participer à La Royale

It was basically a diner, La Royale. The sign said café, but it reminded me of a diner in NYC. The menu layout, the offerings, the tables. One difference was the active bar. That’s not necessarily like an NYC diner. Basically…well, you get the picture. My first meal in Paris was in a diner that offered entrée and dessert specials and called itself a café. I think it was the comfort of familiarity in an unfamiliar place.

There were a few things that troubled me as I prepared for this trip: 1) Would my debit card work to withdraw Euro’s from an ATM? (It did). 2) Would I be able to navigate myself from my hotel to where ever “there” was during the day then back to the hotel again? (so far so good, but the Metro will be the real test). 3) Would I have any problems dining? 

I know that may sound silly -- maybe even absurd -- but as I wandered around my temporary neighborhood, The Marais, today, salivating at times at the thought of bellying up to a bar to enjoy a glass of vin rouge or sitting outside in the crisp, jacket-wearing-weather air at a café table and enjoying a café crème, I passed them all and walked my timid, lily-livered self around and around the winding blocks of a small vicinity in Paris. Looking. Observing. Breathing. Smiling. Finally with hunger and thirst gnawing at my stomach and throat I made the decision to take myself inside La Royale and sit down. I'm trying to speak the language, what little of it I possess (Bonjour, Merci, Oui, S'il vous plaît, Au revior, etc.) — pleasantries — but I have yet to relax and proceed with speaking the French niceties without fear of ridicule or mockery. I mean really, I'm not French so why am I so worried. The point is I find it exciting to speak pleasantries in French. There's no reason I should let my own insecurities stand in my way of meeting new people...or eating. 

I observed myself as I ate. Almost like I had moments of out-of-body-ness where I actually saw myself. Timid, reserved, not wanting to draw attention to myself. I was a far cry from the girl sitting outside with her boyfriend laughing, drinking red wine, smoking a cigarette, and checking herself out in her reflection every chance she got. She was a French speaking Parisian girl without the appearance of care or concern and she was putting me to shame with her abundance of pleasure while I sat my reserved ass in a café chair and tried to remember how I was supposed to eat according to the guidebooks instead of just relaxing and being me…in Paris.

This is the only picture I've taken so far in Paris, but it looks like quintessential Paris to me. 

I’m telling you, people, I have a long way to go to get to the place of not appropriating the ideals that I think others want me to appropriate and of not caring what other people think. As long as I’m kind and courteous, I should just be me. I should demand it of myself. This is my trip to Paris and being afraid of a language barrier (that I’ve yet to encounter) or of looking like a tourist (I AM ONE) is not going to cut it. 

I can’t be anyone else but me and the sooner I realize that the better this trip will be.

BTW, I recommend the white fish in tomato sauce at La Royale. Also, the Chardonnay. It was dry and worked beautifully with the fish. Upon leaving the café I said "Bon soir" (good evening). A French customer of saying goodbye when you leave the business much like saying Bonjour or Bon soir (depending on time of day) when you enter. Participation can be fun.

Voler à Paris

There was no more leg room on this flight than on a typical domestic flight. There was, however, a television on the seat back in front of me. Bonus. Movies! I've only experienced that one time before. When I flew JetBlue to Nashville, Tennessee one Thanksgiving to surprise my family before their feast of turkey and dressing. I watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade then entire flight.

The aisles on this massive plane weren't wide. The seats weren't any wider than any other flight I've been on before either. I wasn't exactly cramped in my seat, but I want exactly spreading out either. The man next to me in his Seersucker suit, although not a fat man, and actually very kind, could be considered "spreading out" as he took up both arm rests at various times during the flight. But I digress.

The airplane, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Air France, was the largest plane I've ever been on. I know from domestic-sized planes, and I know from small planes — those 25-32 seat puddle jumpers connecting from Memphis (formerly) or Chicago to Paducah. It's quite a different experience to be on a plane that seats more than 300 people. A small city soaring through the air, across an ocean. In my section of Economy there were three seats then four seats then three more seats dissected by a couple of aisles. A, B, C (aisle) E, F, G, H (aisle) J, K, L. I've never had that many letters across. 

The announcements were made in French then English with flight attendants representing Dutch, French, and Italian descents. If there was an American he/she was well hidden. 

The people around me all spoke French. Even the small child two seats away. Are they returning home from holiday in America? Are they going on holiday to visit family in the France? Maybe they're just bilingual and choosing to practice the language for a holiday, like mine, in Paris. I'm in the minority here. 

The lights dim in the cabin. It's slow like the romantic dimming of a chandelier but not nearly as sexy sitting in a plane full of people. 

I want to watch a movie. Cinderella to be exact. Or maybe Insurgent. Two movies I never saw when they were playing in the movie theatre. I also want to fall asleep or order a glass of wine. As we taxi I want us to be in the air already. I want us to be halfway there by now. We're not. The wheels have yet to lift off and I still lack patience after all these years. 

It's about the journey: the take off, the flight, the landing, the arrival, the breathing and existing in the French air. These are all things that are part of the journey. The journey is to be savored; enjoyed. Not rushed. I've read about the Parisians. They don't rush. They savor. They sip. They sit. They enjoy. 

With wheels in the air I sat back to enjoy the flight and anticipate the fragrance of the Parisian air.

I chose Cinderella. "Have courage and be kind," Cinderella's mother said to her. Courage and a bit of friendly persuasion is what it took for me to make this journey. Now to find the patience to savor and courage to enjoy my brief respite in France before if becomes a memory.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Départ pour Paris

It still feels unreal. Even as I sit in terminal 1 in JFK airport at gate 3 amidst all the people who will be on my flight. I am flying to Paris. It's already Monday there. But for me Sunday night will give way to Monday morning in a matter of hours and I will be on the ground in France before 1pm (CEST).

This trip has been a long time in the dreaming and wishing but a short time in the reality of its actualization. Almost two weeks ago to the hour of departure I booked the trip. And now the time is here. That didn't give me too much time to anticipate, but enough time for the emotions of fear and excitement to duke it out for the top spot in my chest and in the pit of my stomach. 

I still can't believe this is happening. I can't believe I booked the trip. I can't believe I'm going to Paris. I can't believe I'm going to Paris...alone. These are the thoughts that run through my head as the Air France attendant begins pre-boarding my flight with infants and the rest who get to pre-board. 

A sense of peace washes over me...occasionally. This is happening. When the sun rises in America tomorrow I will be in France, probably in a car on my way to my hotel.