“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
I was born at 4:04am Singapore time on March 28th, 1979, nearly two weeks past my original due date. That meant that around 21h00 on the 27th, Paris time, that my 35th year had commenced. I wanted to give you a 24-hour snapshot of the day, which was not really different from many Fridays in Paris, except for the fact that I had completed most of my work projects for the week and had no students to tutor.
It was the end of the month so I was sending emails to my staff at Word Works, as well as to some vendors and one follow-up with a potential new client.
I tidied up some things, checked my watch again, and decided to be early to my movie at UGC George V on the Champs Élyseés. It would also allow a leisurely walk and I sometimes left too late. I took a small volume of Robert Frost’s poetry in tribute to the bit of Winter that had stubbornly stayed on these last few days. I also brought my language journal. The Grand Budapest Hotel would be subtitled in French, and I would be able to jot down a few new words as they flashed across the screen.
It was quiet as I stepped onto my street. Paris is, in many places, quiet after 8. Even more so in my neighborhood, the 17th arrondissement. I was equidistant between Wagram and Monceau, but Line 2 and Monceau suited me well for my destination.
I clicked along in my high-top black leather shoes that told of my approach along the old cobblestones. I had the beginnings of a smile on my lips for any stranger who might make eye contact with me. I hadn’t become Parisian enough yet to completely avoid eye contact!
I was carrying a water bottle with me. I had brought it with me from the States. People use them all the time there but here very few people carried such bottles around externally. I had to remember not to set it down, lest I forget to pick it up.
I clicked down the steps to my side of the metro station. The timers read 04 and 10. Four minutes to the next train, 10 minutes to the one after that. I adore the Paris Metro. I often feel that it’s faster and better than a private driver. Well…almost.
I sat down on a seat and cracked open my Frost. Many American schoolchildren know “The Road Not Taken” but my real love for his poetry began in 1998 when I studied his work in his beloved New Hampshire at Thomas More College. Poetry can be read a thousand different ways. Tonight I flipped through somewhat indifferently. I was looking for resonance so I could stop reading and reflect. I found it here.
Caught up in my thoughts I automatically rose to get onto my train, then alight at Étoile, and then out onto the Champs, and almost carelessly walked past this, which I always try to stop and admire. After a moment or two I did an about-face and walked to the theater. I chuckled to myself as I had once remarked that only people in San Francisco read while walking, but I realized, nose in my book, that lots of people in dense urban settings do that.
I retrieved my ticket using my UGC card and descended into the lobby to wait for my showtime. It was Lent and I had already had my two collations and main meal for the day. I just tried to keep my eyes on Frost instead of the candy palace before me.
An efficient young man came up some time later and asked me in French what movie I was waiting for. “L’hotel grand de Budapest.” “vous pouvez aller maintenant.” “Merci.”
I chose “orchestra” seating. In some of the theaters in France, as in Singapore, where I first watched movies, they had “balcony” and “orchestra” seating. For most of my life I’ve preferred orchestra.
I settled into my seat. As I’ve grown older I’ve tried to avoid the rush and crowds of a theater by carefully selecting a showtime guaranteed to be less crowded.
The movie was typical Wes Anderson. Fun and detailed backgrounds, signage, and models (Darjeeling Limited). Some foreign language usage but no subtitles (Life Aquatic). Cheekiness (Rushmore). Relationships (Bottle Rocket). Family (Royal Tannenbaums).
I walked home slowly and deliberately, almost as if in the opposite of a race. In the hustle and bustle of the day you can’t always enjoy a walk and now as I had the streets to myself, my clicking footsteps slowed.
As I came out of the Metro and turned towards the treasure that is Parc Monceau I saw the sweep of a spotlight in the sky. It was coming from the Eiffel Tower, of course. In the evening a giant floodlight rotates at the top of that thing, imitating a lighthouse.
Look, I can’t get as excited about the Tour Eiffel as the newbie visitor might. For many who have never been or will never go to Paris, it is the source and summit of their Parisian dreamings, if they have any. My thrill comes when I show first-time visitors or my friends and watch their reaction. Enjoyable, to stay the least.
What’s Paris to me? Square John XXIII. Place des Vosges. Petit Palais. The Diana Statue in the Louvre and at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Kids and boats. Any cafe. St. Francis Xavier. St. Etienne du Mont. Notre Dame de Loreto. The Orsay Clocks. Alexandre Dumas. Moliere. Pastries. Canards. Notre Dame, original edition. Pere Lachaise. Sunsets on the steps of Sacre-Coeur. Music on the Seine.
The sensory overload can cause some to switch off. They go about their day oblivious. And believe me this can happen as easily in Paris as in any other city. But when you let Paris speak to you she’ll disclose wonders.
As I was almost to my apartment I got a text from a colleague who was hosting a podcast. His show had started and his call screener had no-showed. I sprinted up the 7 flights of stairs (when you walk it multiple times a day it isn’t as bad as it sounds) and called in to the studio and screened his calls for about 30 minutes as I got ready for bed.
I thought I would be tired as I tucked in some time later. I had said my prayers and had been texting with a few friends. I put on the beginning of the anticipated Nick Clegg/Nigel Farage debate, and fell asleep (not because I wasn’t interested but because I finally let myself go).
The morning provided a slow wakeup. I had forgotten to turn on my space heater so I drew my blankets in closer to myself to stay warm. Fridays were typically days off, anyway, so I was content to sleep in. I flipped over, pulled up The Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, and heard what the Left had to say about Nigel vs. Nick.
One of the criticisms that crept into my don’t-want-to-get-up-yet ear was that “He (Nigel) clearly can get flustered and he made that crazy statement about the EU having blood on its hands over the Ukraine.” The conversation proceeded apace, and Farage’s foil was the nearly professorial Clegg, who as a “professional member of the political class,” as Nigel is wont to call most MPs, was unflappable as he dodged parry after parry from the UKIP Leader.
“That’s because he’s a normal person,” I thought aloud, to no one in particular. I was much like Nigel – a big idea person – content to leave details to those smarter than myself – confident in my ability to rather lead, motivate, and inspire.
I finally roused myself. I made a petit dejeuner and sat in front of my computer to pay the regular end of the month bills. Funnily enough, my landlady prefers to be paid via paypal, which makes paying rent a breeze.
I also ran down my budget vs. expenditures spreadsheet, now well into Month 5. It was the first month my projections had actually hit their targets. At some point I’ll write a post about the cost of living here. In some ways, it’s expensive, sure, but in many ways having a constrained budget helps you realize just how little one needs to survive in a modern society.
I then turned to some personal and business correspondence, and made out my to-do list for the day. It’s a simple system that works for me. I make a list of 10 things that have to get done by the end of the day and what doesn’t make it goes into the “extra” list. Whatever doesn’t get done that day, together with the extras, helps comprise the next day’s list. Conversely, if I’m ahead of schedule I can pick off some items from the “extra” list.
My friend Justin FaceTimed me. We would not change to Daylight Savings here in France until Sunday, so he was only 5 hours behind me in Florida. It was 07h00 for him and as a coffee lover he was moving past the stupor which first light brings to lovers of the bean.
He’s a business partner and we discussed some matters while I packed up my messenger bag for the day. Books, journals, iphone/ipad charger, ipad mini. We switched to the telephone as he began his commute and I got ready to go out.
It was a truly beautiful morning. I have a really cool list of cafes that purports to offer expressos for 1 euro or less. This is generally reliable. Indeed at Le Trois Pieces the other day I got a cafe creme (French for latte) and half a baguette for 3 euros 20. But that’s to be expected deep in the 17th, where no English speakers or tourists lurk. Here the locals will complain about high prices. But hey, if you want to pay 8 euros for a coffee to get no better view than many other places in Paris, head to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. There you can sit at Deux Magots and Cafe Flore and many other places famous for being famous, which specialize in parting tourists from their money. For me, I’m done standing outside in a line to get into a club: paying to sit in a cafe that offered nothing spectacular, something quite similar, did not make my list.
I set out, to-do list in hand. My chosen cafe today was not far from my front door.
As always, I was treated to sites like this one. But there’s ugly architecture in Paris too, pictured below it, just a block away.
As I headed down the street it turned into a “market” street. This is great for people watching, but terrible for reading and writing, which were my intended activities for the afternoon.
So I turned around from that market street view, and looked at the cafe behind me, and spotted that open table at the end, under the red awning. You have to confidently walk up and grab your spot in a cafe. I lowered my bag and the waiter asked if I was going to eat. No, “un petit cafe seulement” which is French for “I just want to order a coffee and sit here for as long as possible.” He apologized and told me that only the interior was available.
My timing was off. It was lunchtime. Of course they needed the tables. I couldn’t go to my first or second choice cafe, so I was going to engage in flânerie now. I wandered. I still kept an eye out for a possible spot. Everywhere was packed, however, and they don’t really even want to spare an interior spot at lunchtime unless you’re eating. Totally understandable.
I walked into a cafe and gestured to an empty two-top. “C’est libre?” The lady sized me up: “Oui, pour le déjeuner.” “Non, je voudrais un cafe, seulement.” She gestured to the bar and I was content to stand there, drink, and perhaps read for a bit. As she began to pull the espresso she asked, “Voulez-vous installer sur la terrasse?” “Bien sûr.”
I wrote and read for a couple hours. People would stare at me writing just as I would stare at their chiens. Parisians love their dogs.
At some point a French girl in her mid 20s, in all black, sat down next to me. She ordered a soda and started smoking American Spirits. Smoking is under attack in France (just as e-cigarettes are on a meteoric rise) but don’t doubt that it’s still very much the national pastime. If you do doubt it, sit outside at a cafe. Smoke will find you – as you will the ash which now fluttered onto the pages of my journal.
She struck the typical pose – cigarette carelessly held between the index and middle fingers of her left hand. Sunglasses. No frown but certainly no smile. She was thinking – not really observing much. I was positioned to observe without being obvious.
After smoking 3 cigarettes and downing her diet coke, she abruptly got up and crossed the street, off to her next destination. She had paid for her drink when it was delivered, which is often the custom when you sit outdoors.
I checked my watch. I had a podcast I was hosting at 16h00 and it was 15h00. I wrapped up my work and walked out. Among the sites I saw on the way was this. Great advertising.
My sister messaged me saying the children wanted to wish me a happy birthday. Sure.
FaceTime gave me a moment with her and two of the cuties in my life. I got a happy birthday song and caught up a bit.
“What are you getting for yourself?” she asked. I was looking for a scarf, I thought. Scarves really are everything in this town and finding the right one, and tying it the right way, does matter.
I didn’t want her to buy me anything, so I told her instead, “Clare, I’m living in Paris. That is my gift.”
So it was. My last birthday in Europe had been 14 years ago, in 2000. Despite the fact that we had been able to drink for months my friends insisted it was “legal in America” night and I made it home that night, despite the tricky cobblestones in Trastevere, thanks to the sturdy left shoulder of my college sweetheart.
The podcast had a few technical glitches but we got them handled. I then had a call with a new hire for one of my businesses, firmed up some weekend plans with friends – the new Captain America was coming out a week earlier here in France and I planned to take advantage.
I got dressed for dinner at a great Indian restaurant (Vallée du Kashmir, in case you’re wondering). And just like that, my first 24 hours of my 35th year lapsed.
Some years ago the Lees Summit Chamber of Commerce conference room contained 20 of us who were sitting in a meeting room trying to organize a “young person’s” group. One of the first questions the group posed was “How old is young?” A couple eminences grises had tentatively asked, “25 to 45?”
An attractive girl I had been flirting with snickered, and I raised my hand to speak. At 28 I was less diplomatic than I should have been, and blurted out, “I mean honestly, who considers 40 young?” The 20-somethings in the room nodded their heads and the few 40-somethings in the room wilted.
It’s an unfortunate American trait that considers youth the greatest time of life and seeks to chase it indefinitely. At dinner this night I would hear the phrase “James Dean” float over from an adjoining table (in an Indian restaurant, in a Muslim neighborhood, in France) and as I recounted this anecdote to my friend I was told the French have this problem as well.
Whatever happened to aging gracefully? For my part the oldest person is always the coolest person in the room. They have great stories and so much more experience.
At 35 I suppose some would still consider me young – and since I had done so much (I had hoped) to disprove George Bernard Shaw’s (oft correct) “It is too bad that youth was wasted on the young,” it didn’t matter what you called me. I still thought it was a laugh that anyone in their 40s would call themselves young, but I did feel truly blessed that, whatever age I had lived to, I woke up this morning in Paris, having accomplished almost everything I’ve ever dreamed of.
Time for some new dreams.
I want to thank my parents, who gave me life, God who gave me my soul, and my family and friends who give me so much love and encouragement every single day.