Thank you, Andi and Jove, for the welcome to Women and Words.
The last time I had the privilege of recording my thoughts here was last Fall, shortly after Paris was terrorized. At that time I recalled what Paris means to me and to other writers of color who have lived or traveled there. I said I hoped I would overcome my fears, return to France one day, and revisit the parks and cafes once frequented by my literary s/heroes.
Two weeks ago I returned home after a nine day visit to France. I could write about visualizing James Baldwin as he sat at a table in the Cafe de Flore, cigarette perched tentatively between his lips, a cup of espresso at rest next to his slender fingers as he stared at no one in particular and everyone who made him feel less different, less “lesser than…” I could describe the looks of amazement that must have crossed the faces of the passers-by when they saw Josephine Baker stroll along the Champs Elysees with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, slinking along on a leash. More accurately, I could describe the depth of my feelings as once again, I rediscovered the joy of hearing, “Bonjour, Madame,” sung more than spoken, and of responding with the same lyric. Instead, let me relate a couple of less serious non-writer related events that occurred during this last travel adventure.
Mind you, dear readers, we are veteran travelers. That’s why the first incident was such a surprise. My spouse, (let’s call her Vivian,) two friends, and I went out to lunch a few hours after our arrival. For decades I’ve chanted the mantra, “Drink only bottled water.” Why then did I scarf down half a carafe of tap water the waitress set on our table? My thirst overtook my common sense.
An hour later I was bent over, exclaiming, “Yay! I’ve discovered a new colonoscopy prep! No pills to swallow! No Gatorade!”
Most hotels in Paris practice conserving electricity. You have to insert the room’s key card into a slot atop a small rectangular box affixed to the wall near the room’s entrance. This activates the lights, the TV, the radio, and all the outlets. When you leave the room and take the key card with you, everything is extinguished.
As I was preparing for my fantasy colonoscopy, Vivian (let’s call her Viv) decided to go to the lobby to collect some touristic pamphlets she’s seen earlier. Considerate of my post tap water condition, she didn’t want to ask me to readmit her to our room upon her return. She opened the door, plucked her key card from the electricity thingy, and promptly left. A second later the absence of light from the lamps and the drawn drapes helped plunge the entire room, including the W.C., into total darkness. We might as well have been in the midst of a total eclipse. In my weakened and now dehydrated state, I became the sightless little girl in “All the Light We Cannot See.” I paid silent homage to my musical hero, Stevie Wonder, and I vowed to contribute to the Association of the Blind the very next time they sent me a solicitation letter.
During our second day in Paris we opted to visit the Sacre Coeur atop Montmartre. I wrote “atop” for good reason. Even though we rode the funiculaire from the midpoint to an upper level, the cathedral loomed above us, majestically constructed at the summit of Paris’ cobblestone covered only hill.
“Jesus, find me a Sherpa and a St. Bernard,” I hissed with the little bit of breath I could summon. “This hill wasn’t that high the last time I climbed it.”
Then I remembered the last time. I was in high school and it was the summer between ninth and tenth grades. I’m no longer that particular person.
When I persuaded my eyes to uncross, I did enjoy the view of Paris spread out in front of me and I found the Edith Piaf sing-alike woman near Place du Tertre fascinating. Of course, they might have been visual and auditory hallucinations caused by oxygen deprivation.
Day three of the trip brought our river boat to Conflans and the nearby village of Auvers-Sur-Oise, where Vincent Van Gogh spent his last seventy days. As we retraced the artist’s footsteps up a vertical ascent (cobblestones again, this time alternating with an unpaved rut-filled path) to see the wheat fields he depicted in quite a few of his paintings, we imagined Van Gogh making the same journey day after day. He would have lugged his paints, an easel, his brushes and canvases, and perhaps food and drink for sustenance. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why those seventy days there were the last of his life. The climb would have worsened his deteriorating physical condition as well as his depressed state of mind. No wonder he shot himself in the tummy. No one wanted to buy the paintings that week after week he created after thankless climbs.
Our boat’s last mooring (after a very sobering visit to the WW II Landing Beaches in Normandy) was in Vernon, a town close to Giverny, the home of Claude Monet. Thanks to the recent rains, Monet’s gardens were a visual feast. I might have come away from that visit with only the gardens’ vibrant colors and the artist’s home with its stunning blue and yellow kitchen clinging to my memory if our charming guide, Estelle, hadn’t uttered in her wonderfully French idiom-laced English, “And now, I will tell you some gossips about Claude Monet.”
I could tell that Estelle was fairly itching to share the gossips. She gathered us close and shared an unsavory narrative about Monet and one of his step-daughters. If you’re familiar with Woody Allen’s bio, you’ve heard the tale before.
One word about security at Charles de Gaulle Aeroport: different. We didn’t have to remove our shoes or belts, but prior to placing our bags on the conveyor belt that would take them to luggage handling hell, we were approached by a security type who chatted us up about my former career as a teacher and Viv’s favorite hobby, gardening. I suppose we might have invited further scrutiny if I hadn’t winced when I mentioned teaching teenagers and Viv hadn’t glowed when she said her potato plants had broken through her veggie garden’s soil a week before we set off on our trip. Our facial expressions were just the bio-metric proof we needed to be approved for our flight.
At the end of the day, we are grateful we traveled safely, saw such wonderful interesting sights, ate great food, and kept our sense of humor.
Merci, belle France, pour l’accueil heureux!
Merci, Women and Words and its readers for the warm welcome!
Renee Bess is the author of Leave of Absence, Breaking Jaie, RE:Building Sasha, The Butterfly Moments, and The Rules. You can read more about her here: http://www.reneebess.com