It was Thursday night and I found myself in the seizième arrondissement taking a video of my French friends taking a shot of Unicum for the first time. Their faces were distorted in pain, a look that any Unicum pusher knows so well and delights in. After our Unicum, we found ourselves at a bar at Trocadéro. We closed down the bar and had to relinquish our seats so they could be stacked and stored as we finished our drinks. Afterwards we all crashed, myself most of all after a long travel day. And so began my long weekend that was all too short in my second favorite city in the world.
Paris for all its faults is a jewel of architecture, history and culture, and there is no better reminder of this than the endless flow of tourists who clog every nook and cranny of city during summers, pouring out of Notre Dame and the Louvre and cramming the metros with their camera lenses fixed skywards and their feet tripping on the legs of cafe tables. But there are also the timeless Parisien scenes: the booksellers on the Seine, the waiters with immaculate black and white uniforms conjuring platters of foie gras and croque monsieur like magicians, the street performers, the omnipresent accordion sound drifting in the air.
Friday my host, Jonathan, went to work so I went to the left bank, to Shakespeare and Company. It is not the same Shakespeare and Company Hemingway fondly remembered in A Moveable Feast, but it is at least half a century old and filled with books and tourists to read the books. The reading room upstairs was nearly empty when I went upstairs and finished A Moveable Feast looking out on Notre Dame across the river. It became the fifth Hemingway I have read, making Hemingway one of my most frequented authors. I picked up a copy of Green Hills of Africa while there, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce. It seemed appropriate to purchase the books at their authors’ inspirational nexus. Friday night I met up with Jonathan and he took me to shabbat dinner with his cousin and his girlfriend and two other friends. Aside from the opening kiddush, the dinner was like any other and flowed with wine and rapid conversation. Malheureusement my French competency is not what it might be and I found it very difficult to participate at speed with my hosts, who were gracious enough to include me in English several times in the conversation. I found that it was much easier for me to understand the flow of conversation than to speak, and although many things slipped past me–notably all the joke punchlines–I was able to understand the humor of dialogue and participate as such. Jonathan and I had discussed my libertarianism earlier that day, and he brought it up at the dinner table which led to a short interchange about the relative merits of American-style individualism and French-style communitarianism. Jonathan and his friends are in the upper strata, more or less, of French society, so it was interesting to hear their take on French society and what they expected from the future. Jonathan’s cousin and his girlfriend are moving to Singapore, and Jonathan will be trying to move to the US as soon as possible. Critics of American exceptionalism will often point out how much better various indicators are in other countries in the world, especially Europe, but I found it revealing how desperately these young people in this particular class are trying to flee France, a country that, after all, has been very good to them and their families. I heard many times how America was the greatest country in the world. I also found it interesting one passionate defense of French socialism by a guest at the table, in light of the fact that most of the people she knows are trying to flee French socialism as soon as possible–and the new 75% tax imposed by François Hollande doesn’t help the situation. At one point the subject of pig latin came up and I became the de facto educator of pig latin at the table. My French friends had never heard of pig latin before, and were quite amused in their attempts to speak it despite their many errors. Michael, our host, had particular trouble translating the “ay” sound, instead using “ah,” much to the amusement of his girlfriend. One thing I noticed, being a passive observer of dinner conversation without the ability to participate, was the flow of conversation topics. As the proverbial fly on the wall I was able to follow the conversation from elephants to caves to attics to rumors to politics to airplanes to consulting to business to chocolate and that was 4 hours. I found the simultaneous attempt to follow the conversation and understand French and drink wine to be quite exhausting, but worth the experience. It has only motivated me more to learn French much much better, a promise I made to Jonathan and I intend to keep. Friday night we crashed and slept in the next day.
Saturday Jonathan and I met up with Michael for petit déjeuner where we had croissants and hot chocolate and toast with honey and orange juice. Michael unfortunately is recovering from a fractured shin, so he is on crutches and our walking range was limited. We drove into the city and parked on Île de la Cité. As we got out of the car, someone across the Seine decided to dive in for an afternoon swim. He paddled around in the river for a couple minutes before a patrol boat fished him out. We crossed the bridge and descended upon Paris Plage, a new initiative whereby a “beach” has been built on the formerly paved bank of the Seine. This beach is one lane of traffic wide and is basically a sand pit. Many children play with sand pails and parents bring beach chairs, but this is not a beach. I learn that Paris Plage was met with derision as a project, both for its cost and its disruption of summer traffic, which we got a taste of on our drive down the right bank. It seems pretty silly in retrospect, but I suppose enough people are enjoying themselves on this “beach” to make it worthwhile. The bank of the Seine also hosted a disappointingly awful dance trio who inexplicably drew a huge crowd. After our brief excursion to the beach, we went back to the seizième and got sushi takeout for a picnic. We picked up Michael’s and Jonathan’s girlfriends and all ended up at the park with our sushi and fruit picnic. More French was spoken. More English was spoken with me than before. Wine was flowing. After the picnic we went to the cinema on Champs-Élysées and saw Starbuck, a Quebecois movie about a sperm donor who, 20 years later, finds out he has 500 children that want to meet him. It was an endearing movie but not that good. It was in Quebecois French without subtitles. I understood most of it. After the movie we relaxed at home for a bit before going out for a party. The party was good. I learned that in France, many people learn English using textbooks starring a character named Brian. The question is posed to the students, “Where is Brian?” to which the students respond, “Brian is in the kitchen.” It thus became imperative to take a picture of Brian in the kitchen. We did. The party lasted until 5am. I had a train to catch at 9am. I crashed. The French stayed out for two more hours.
Paris was cathartic for me. This was my sixth time in the city. No reason to do all the tourist stuff, although when I arrived I did walk for two hours from Châtelet to Rue de Belles Feuilles while on a conference call with Ustream, which my phone bill will be none too happy about. But on the walk I passed by the Louvre, across the Pont des Arts, down Saint-Germain, across Les Invalides, to the Champ de Mars and around the Eiffel Tower to Trocadéro, and the next day I walked from Rivoli across Île de la Cité and Notre Dame to Shakespeare and Company, through the Latin Quarter to Pantheon and Jardin Luxembourg, and finally to Odéon and Place Saint-Michel. So you could say I did most of the things tourists would do, although at this point I can do it without a map and I have a sense of ownership over my route. Paris is my city, or so I hope it to be one day. But the most important part about being in Paris for me was the soul of the city, the jazz music in the air, the smell of crêpes and waffles, the sweeping memories of bygone eras: kings, princes, all the wars and republics, the settling of the Seine, the height of power, the darkness of occupation, and through it all the constant beat of Gallic optimism. There is no other place where roads and history and life intersect on the same metaphysical plane: past, present, future, left, right and center, night, day and eternity.
The next day I took the train to London at 9 in the morning. The Eurostar train was high speed and whipped through the chunnel at breakneck speed, leaving us with our ears popped on both ends. London is gearing up for the Olympics, but I saw none of it, opting to catch a train to Oxford to see my good friend for lunch, before turning around and coming back to Hampton Court Palace where my family rented the Fish Court to have a reunion, 16 years later, of our first family vacation. It’s a full week of vacation for them, but I was only there for the night. Dinner was at a new Lebanese restaurant in the town, and dessert was a bottle of Graham’s port bottled 1912–its 100 year anniversary. It is hard to imagine how much different the world was when every person who made that bottle was alive and well and optimistic. It has been only 100 years, a blink in history, but an eternity for a young mortal trying to imagine how dead and buried he will be when 2112 rolls around. In the last century there were two world wars, three brutal totalitarianisms, the transformative liberalization of the global economy, the internet and the politics of interconnectivity, a cold war and a space age. It is hard to imagine what will happen in the next 100 years. The port was delicious and perfectly preserved.
At 5 in the morning on Sunday I got up and began my trek back to Budapest, with a Eurostar train from London to Paris Nord, the RER B from Gare du Nord to Charles de Gaulle, the EasyJet from Charles de Gaulle to Budapest T2, and finally a taxi to work where I finished out the work day with 2 meetings and a great dinner at Klassz in Budapest with my Ustream colleagues. I was reflecting during a mad dash through Waterloo station on Sunday to make the train to Hampton how travel is the one thing I am truly exceptional at: making ambitious plans, improvising, learning by direct experience, catching the trains on time but also lingering at the memorable and ephemeral moments along the way, and never having too much of a plan in order to avoid disrupting the discovery. Nothing I have ever done or will do comes close to the experience of making it from point A to point B in as interesting and unique a route as possible, with as many things as possible accomplished along the way.