Friday, August 29, 2008

A little hope

Naked hope, so sharp it's painful.

When I heard him speak four years ago, I felt the same thing. I wished - despairingly - that we were the kind of country that could elect someone like him President.

Yeah, he's just a guy, just a politician. I know this, too well. He won't save us. But if we take a chance on someone like this - someone who appeals to our better lights, who will say, "I am my brother's keeper" - if we take this chance, maybe we can save ourselves.

Maybe it will show we haven't given up on ourselves yet.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Walking to the bus from a doctor's appointment, I turn left, on impulse, down a small side street. It's mid-morning on a weekday, and there are no cars on the street.

I pass a domed building with wide, curving steps to the front door. The steps and Doric columns are pinkish marble. A small plaque tells me it's the Armenian Community Center. Beside it is a small chapel with a quiet garden in front, Gregory the Illuminator, Armenian Church. A young man, bag over his shoulder, turns sharply and disappears into the chapel. I think about going in, sitting in a cool pew, the scent of incense. Are non-Armenians welcome? What is the protocol? Does one cross oneself?

I turn right on Euclid Avenue. Something glides silently into my peripheral vision, snags at my eye, and I turn to look. It's a man in full bicycle-racing gear: lycra shorts and numbered jersey, sleek helmet that gives a feeling of speed. He is lean and muscled. He's riding an antique velocipede, a boneshaker, the front wheel almost as tall as me, holding himself still and upright, he moves at a stately pace down the road.

Two men are washing windows on my side of the street, one at the top of a ladder, the other holding the bottom. The man holding the ladder watches the velocipede pass, he can look at nothing else, he and I pause, and watch. The bicyclist stops at a light, balances for a few precious seconds, creeping forward and back, but finally he has to jump down. The light turns green and he's neatly in the seat again, he's moved so swiftly that I missed the moment. The window washer and I watch him turn and disappear around the corner.

I breathe in and breathe out, a space opened up inside my head, and I walk through soft morning air toward the bus.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nostalgia is a drug, part 2

Continued right away to give Geo a little something to read while she heals...

We ask the desk clerk (the twin who wears the dark glasses) for a Do Not Disturb sign. At least I think that's what I ask him. Behind his sunglasses, he gives no sign of even hearing me. I describe to him, in my parody of French, our adventure of the morning. We don't want another adventure, I believe I tell him.

He nods quietly, his sunglasses reflecting the light from the street.

We don't ride the metro in Paris. This surprises me a bit; I romanticize the metro - symbol of childhood freedom - it represents a big piece of my Paris memories. And I know how to find my way around from metro stops. Maybe that's one reason. I don't want to rely on ancient habits to find my childhood. I want a new route there.

And neither of us is interested in going underground and getting on another vehicle. We both want to walk. We've been cooped up too long; we want to wander and lose ourselves.

Paris is the place to lose yourself. People leave you alone. I appreciate this. When I was here as a kid, my family tried to teach me how to wear a "metro face." A metro face is stone cold, man. It tells strangers that you are not a soft touch, you are not interested in a date or a cheap watch. My sister had a great metro face, like a door coming down, shutting off her beautiful features behind bulletproof glass like the Mona Lisa. She looked like she was born here.

I looked like a goofy small-town kid from Utah. I'd give my gap-toothed grin to anyone, look people in the eye, chat with someone who tried to engage me. But here's the thing. Parisians don't engage.

I still have no metro face. I can shut it down some, if I'm paying close attention, but it takes a lot of concentration, and I can't keep it up for long. This gets me in trouble all over the world. Most often, it just means I get into some interesting conversations with colorful people. But it can be tiring, after a while. By the time we got to Paris, I was exhausted.

And I got to rest. In Paris, I can look people in the eye, I can smile at them, and they don't see it as an invitation. Parisians don't engage. This means a genuine rest for me. I can let my face do what it wants, and nobody expects anything from me.

I could have used a metro face in Provo much more than I need one in Paris.

As we walk, my bones loosen in their joints. I walk easily beside Mr. Billy, opening up, not caring where we go or how long it takes to get there. We follow side streets because they're small and curving and I see the wide doors I remember from this quarter. Behind these doors are broad courtyards and stairs leading to apartments or boarding-house rooms.

"Hey," says Mr. Billy, "I think the Luxembourg Gardens are right down there."

He points down a street. I can feel the past barreling in toward my chest; the pension was at one corner of Luxembourg.

We walk down the street, and my eyes are eating everything in our path.

"That's the metro stop," I say, pointing. I remember this. Climbing up and out of the metro onto a garden island in the street. I slow down. Many of the wide doors I remember have been replaced by slick storefronts. Children's clothing. High-end chocolate. None of this was here before, and I start to doubt myself. Maybe this isn't it. It's been thirty years. How would I know?

A paper store, called Marie Papier. This makes me smile, just a fraction. My mom's name was Marie, and she was a poet. A little joke, just for me.

Across the street is a patisserie. It's more than thirty years old, and it hasn't changed, it hasn't changed at all. I'm nine years old and pressing my forehead against the glass, counting my centimes for a mille feuilles or a chocolate eclair, dancing my eyes over cakes and trills of chocolate and fresh raspberries.

This is the pension where I attended school

We're here. There, to the left, is the pension itself. It's a nondescript building, but for me it breathes and speaks stories into my mind. I can see the row of windows on the second floor, where the classrooms were. I would hang over the railing during class breaks to see what was happening in the street. The back window, where the French student stayed - the only one who wasn't part of our group - I had a crush on him. I don't remember his name, but he wore a scarf around his neck and little round glasses, and he would tell me, in English, that he was "teer-ed", and I would reply that I had fatigue.

I squeeze Mr. Billy's hand, drunk on memories. It's several minutes before I can move.

More to the meantime, check out Mr. Billy's take on our adventures in France

Nostalgia is a drug

Our first morning in Paris, and we're sleeping in. Blissfully, hedonistically, sleeping late. Until we hear the doorknob rattle. We both scramble up, clutching the bedclothes to our chests, staring at the door.

"The maid?" says Mr. Billy.

"We have the key," I say.

In Parisian hotels, you leave your key at the front desk when you go out. No danger of losing the key, and the hotel always knows when you're in your room. No "Do not disturb" signs, but that shouldn't be a problem, should it?

The doorknob stops, and we stare for a moment before breathing, sighing, then snuggling back under the covers. The fingers of a dream are just creeping over my brain when the rattling starts up again. And then the unmistakable sound of a key sliding into a lock.

We leap into action: I lunge for the door, Mr. Billy for the safety of the bathroom.

"Nononononononon" I babble through the door, holding tight to the knob. The door opens an inch and I search the dusty files in my brain for the right phrase:

"Nous sommes ici! Nu! Nous sommes nu!"

I'm unsure if an announcement that we are naked will be enough of a deterrent, but the door closes at last, and I hear footsteps recede down the hall. Mr. Billy peeks around the bathroom door and I collapse on the bed, laughing hysterically.

"Well, we're up now. Wanna go see Paris?"

We have three days in Paris. No agenda, no appointments. We'd planned this break in the city without any ideas of hitting the tourist hot spots. In a way, Paris had been a big blank spot in my idea of our trip to France. We have no plans at all. We step out into the city, and I realize that we must not be far from the pension where I attended school when I lived here as a kid.

I use "attended school" loosely in this context. I was nine, and my dad was directing a University Study Abroad here. "School" was college classes at the pension where the students stayed. My family stayed in an apartment a few metro stops away. I completed the 4th grade via home study, and attended the college courses for fun. I got an A+ in French, but my 12-year-old brother showed me up with an A+++.

We were in Paris for less than a year, but that time was crazily overbalanced in my memory. Up until then, I was a kid from small-ish college town Provo, Utah. I could walk to my best friend's house & play in the field across the street. We could walk to school together and ride our bikes to the swimming pool, but to really get anywhere, I had to be driven.

One week in Paris with a metro map and a carte orange, and I could go anywhere I wanted in the city - all by myself. I hung out with college kids. I ate crepes made fresh from a street cart. My brother and I did the shopping for the whole family, because we'd picked up the language quicker than the older folks. It was paradise. This word has been overused, its juice and flavor squeezed out, but it was paradise in the full, fat, juicy sense of the word.

So I feign nonchalance when I propose to Mr. Billy that we try to find the pension. I don't want to make it a mission; that fear of disappointment is still strong, and most of what I want is unstructured time with Mr. Billy. We wander as aimless as eight-year-olds, pointing at buildings and eyeglass designs. We watch Parisians on the shared bicycles that belong to the city; you can pick one up just about anywhere, insert a token, and ride it to another part of the city, then drop it off.

A lot of people ride scooters. Helmet designs are particularly attractive here.

We wander, and we stop to eat hot crepes on the street, and we casually glance at the maps that are all over the city. I laugh when I see we've been walking in exactly the opposite direction from the pension.

To be continued...