Paris: June 14, 1991...
never knew how sterile my winter in London had been until I saw Paris. Not to deny the stimulation of London - but if London is a stimulant, then Paris is an excitement! If London be captivating (as it certainly was for me), Paris, for contrast, can only be called intoxicating. The pity of it all - nay, the tragedy - is that I could spare only a week for it in the momentum of my roll through Europe.
Evelyne, the host I had fortunately kept, from my original GN contacts, lived in Montrouge on Paris' south fringe in a block-long concrete apartment building of typically dreary postwar design. I had phoned ahead from Rennes on Eric's generous insistence. Now I called from a nearby booth and she said I could come right up.
Tall, slim and angular almost to the point of being ungainly, she greeted me at the door. Beneath an uneasy bun coiled from shoulder-length dark brown hair, her quick smile made instant sunshine of features otherwise sober...disdainful of cosmetic foolery. The lack of artifice imparted a certain ageless quality; I couldn't have guessed Evelyne was in her forties. Our conversation was off and running at once, but it took me awhile to get used to her accent. Like starting a race without the handicap lead I should have been entitled to.
I was given a back room furnished with little more than some of Evelyne's own sculpture, and a great mattress that took up half the floor space. The sculpture, stark white and spare, one piece clearly a self-portrait, was her pastime and private passion. Professionally, Evelyne was a translator, self-employed, with a busy schedule of commissions. She was fluent in both German and English, and able to make her way with Spanish and Dutch, as well.
She shopped for supper an hour after my arrival, while I stayed behind and took a nap to restore my energy for the evening. I woke to the sizzling sound and smell of kitchen activity. An aromatic ratatouille almost ready to eat, served with steak - something I hadn't tasted in a few years. While I'm nominally a vegetarian, there are other things to consider when on the road. First of all, the obligation to be a good guest, appreciative of whatever a host chooses to share; and then there is the principle of accepting what the Universe brings - a Universe less rigid in its provision than we in our demands of it. We dined and talked, and wined . . . and talked on, long into the evening. Here I was in Paris, perhaps the most magical city in the world, with no urge at all to go out and explore. But the magic was right here in Evelyne's apartment: the warmth and delight of a Parisian's friendship.
But the next day was a different story. I first took advantage of the telephone Evelyne offered, to arrange for two other Paris hosts during the latter part of my week. Then, furnished with a street map and transit advice, I set out on a long walk that took me right into the heart of the city, to the Seine River. And what a delight! A city of incredible vitality blended with gentility and charm. At every hand, the most magnificent building facades I had ever seen, harmonized by tributes, in an endless array of statuary, to feminine form and features - regal figures dominating the boulevards with their imperious hauteur . . . or softer goddesses gazing down from lintel and arch, in that radiant earthy innocence of la belle epoque, the age of Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec. A feast of seductive imagery in stone. One could hardly live in such a city as this and not be sensitized to art and beauty.
Feast for the palate was there, too, hardly to be ignored - but not for mine. Paris could easily be the ruin of my budget if I gave in to its edible temptations. Mine was the cheapo tour, and I got by on my usual mid-day apple and an 80-cent almost-pastry from a street vendor - some strange baked thing coated with cinnamon. But my comestible restraint posed no hardship . . . gluttony was fully served by the visual feast underway.
Any hunger I had to stifle, that day, was offset in the evening when I joined Evelyne at a pre-arranged rendezvous for an Italian dinner. We were a party of four, with two earlier guests of hers who happened to be back in Paris staying with other hosts. They were from Seattle, too; and quite incredibly, one of them had been in the same program as I, at the University of Washington, and even remembered having seen me there! She took this `small world' phenomenon quite easily in stride, as though it happened regularly, and the four of us squeezed into the tightest seating imaginable for a clam and rigatone feast. At something close to $11, my most expensive meal thus far, it completely trashed the day's austerity.
All the next day I went walking again, mainly along the river and on the Ile de la Cité, the island in the Seine where stands the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The breathlessly monumental and inexhaustible extent of classic Beaux Arts architecture one sees from the bridge over the Seine - for it isn't just here and there, or even in clusters, but literally everywhere - simply cannot be compared with anything in the States. Or, really, with anything less than nature's own impressive sweep of magnificence.
I didn't go inside the Notre Dame Cathedral, discouraged by a $3.25 entry fee. I did, however, stand there to watch the tourists stream out, and watch them walk by the scatter of people begging alms there. The crippled and deformed, whose very presence at this tourist locus puts a double counterpoint into play: on the one hand, with the Cathedral - spirit expressed as priceless spectacle - and with sight-seeing pilgrims, on the other, who pay to grace themselves by viewing the shrine, yet remain predictably blind to the plight of these woeful who gather in the shadow of this monument to the patron of charity, itself. I played this back and forth in my mind, like a discordant bit of blues, until I could puzzle it no longer. I was ashamed enough to give a coin to a sightless man before walking on.
It was my turn to treat, for the third and final night at Evelyne's, and we went for a late pizza dinner at a quiet little place near her apartment. It felt like some closeness had developed between us, and for the first time I experienced a real regret at moving on to another host. But it had already been arranged. Evelyne said she'd be in Munich on a contract job, sometime in August. If I could manage to be there during those few weeks, we might be able to arrange a rendezvous. She even broached the idea of a possible visit with me if I should find a wintering place in Greece.
THE SECOND of my Paris hosts lived on the north side, up near Montmartre and the famous old Moulin Rouge Theater. This was a young couple, Josette and Jean-Pierre, occupying an expansive old-style apartment on an upper floor. Their door opened into an amenity I had forgotten I ever once lived with: a long central hallway branching to each of their several rooms. We have undergone such a steady `upgrade' of residential style, in America, that it's been easy to forget the spaciousness, and the ways of space, that were once a part of ordinary living. Here was a reminder - the first of many I was to have - of what we've lost along the way to better living standards, so-called, in the urban `space wars' of America commonly called progress.
For all of that, their kitchen was tiny and cramped, an indication that the original apartment was even larger and had been split in two. Josette led me on beyond, to the dining room, its table set almost formally for dinner, down to linen napkins in silver rings. They had been waiting my arrival - intent, it seemed, on being perfect hosts, and I felt awkward at being late. But they radiated only that idyllic happiness of a marriage not yet beyond its first year - though I never confirmed my impression.
I blamed my tardiness (not quite truthfully) on a scary encounter that occurred in the Metro - the Paris subway. On the platform of my exit, I had to get by a pair of fellows engaged in something serious. The one I had to pass had a knife in his hand. The other was taunting him from a subway car whose door remained open, as if to let the drama proceed. He, too, may have had a knife; my attention was locked on the mean-looking one standing in my way, waving his in the air. He had wrapped a blue jacket around his other arm, ready for close quarter fighting. Whatever they were yelling at each other, it sounded like a challenge to tangle, and I couldn't be sure it wouldn't explode before I got by.
I suppose I didn't really have to walk by him, but he blocked my way to an exit and my impulse was to get out of there as fast as I could. A quick, unhesitant pace took me around and past him, and I didn't look back. The few other people nearby stood and watched, with that morbid curiosity that is often stronger than prudence or fear; but I just wanted to get out. Only later did it occur to me that I was close enough to have been grabbed as a shield or a buffer, had the action suddenly ignited.
But that event hastened me, if anything, to Josette and Jean-Pierre's. The reason for my delay had been a lingering late-afternoon tea with Evelyne, the last I'd see of her before leaving Paris. It was hard to quit our endless flow of conversation, though it was seldom of more than incidental consequence.
"Where deed you go, zees aftair noon?"
"To the Louvre. Nobody does Paris without it, right?"
". . . Duz Paree weethout eet?"
"Oh, you know, Evelyne. A visit wouldn't be complete without the Louvre."
"And what you think of eet?"
"To be honest, it's the most confusing museum I've ever been in. I was lost almost as soon as I left the lobby, going through one room after another, trying to find what I wanted to see. The rooms link like rail cars, and if you 'get off the train' there's no way to find your way back to where you began."
"But evairthing ees marked, weeth signs all ovair."
"Sure. In French. There's nothing in English beyond the lobby."
"Well, what you expect? You een France."
I couldn't argue with her logic. I went on to tell her how it finally got so frustrating that I just wanted to get out of there. But finding an exit was no easier than anything else I had been looking for.
"What was eet you were looking for?"
"Oh, there were four or five things I had hoped to see, but I only managed to find one of them, the Venus de Milo. And it didn't even have any arms!"
Her brown eyes told me what she thought of my humor.
She did, however, suggest that I try the Museé d'Orsay, and that was my next day's direction. It turned out to be everything that the Louvre wasn't. Recycled from an old railway station in the heart of town, the d'Orsay was blessed with a great open interior, like a cathedral, and took every artful advantage of it. A central display of sculpture, with emphasis on 19th century stone and bronze work, ranged upward along gently stepped levels open to the high ceiling. It was one exquisite piece after another, a really amazing collection, culminating at the topmost level with a copy of Rodin's massive portal called The Gates of Hell. Inspired by Dante's Inferno, Rodin had worked at this for almost forty years to create a masterpiece so compelling it is hard to turn away from. The portal is solid, yet . . . seemingly fluid, engorged with figures partial and complete, each in ceaseless struggle, straining against its containment in that solidified nothingness.
Exhibit spaces to the sides of the central corridor were filled with 19th century oils, much better illuminated than is usually the case in art museums. Off in a far corner, the only spot with sufficient wall space for it, hung a monster-sized, unusually detailed painting of Paris as seen from the vantage of a balloon in 1855. Painted by Victor Navlet, it was done with such realism I was quite certain, coming upon it, that it must be a photograph.
I paid for a second, and even a third entry to the d'Orsay (at $2.40 per), returning on subsequent days, in penalty for my ambling, `potluck' way of seeing the sights of Paris. Walking was far more fun than taking the Metro, but I would find myself drawn down one side street after another and by the time I reached the museum, each afternoon, I was shocked at how much of the day had drifted away.
I made sure of an early return to my host, for the second night's dinner. Josette had promised a Paris Special, and she served a perfectly cooked soufflé followed by a flambé dessert! It reflected their tasteful, elegant lifestyle - which she, however, insistently referred to as `simple living' because it included no automobile or television. Josette seemed always 'on stage,' with an engaging, positive personality. I thought, at first, it was an occupational facade, for she ran a local guide and greeter service from their home. But before these two brief days had gone by, I could see she was really that way - a charming person, never flustered by any situation, though at times she was clearly under pressure, trying to blend home and business worlds. John-Pierre, who worked as a customs inspector, was congenial too, certainly, but not in the same ever-gracious, outgoing way as Josette.
Next morning, I strolled the Montmartre area, but far too early to see any of its bohemian life. I went off, then, to find the Arc de Triomphe and walk from there back toward the d'Orsay, along that great avenue called the Champs Elysées. But I was stopped in my tracks, at the great arch, by sheer fascination with the traffic circle around it - surely the finest spectacle in all of Paris. The craziest, anyway. Like spokes on a wheel, no fewer than twelve major boulevards feed into this one grand circle: three to five concentric lanes of rolling, rushing vehicles, with no traffic control that amounts to anything. A lone gendarme clad in grey and blue tried to regulate the flow from the Champs Elysées, but he was mostly reduced to dodging it. I stood rooted there for more than an hour waiting for an accident to happen, unable to imagine that it wouldn't.
The swirling maelstrom only paused when some driver, finding no ready egress from the inner churn, would pull up short and wait for a break, halting the flow behind him. In a chain reaction, the entire wheel took the cue until nothing at all moved and the orchestrator who had started it all - or stopped it all - would slip through the frozen melée, grandly exercising his moment of power. Then it would all resume as before. No accidents! Almost as marvelous to behold was the occasional bicyclist who'd casually pedal into this onrushing whirlpool and make it through without a scratch, and seemingly without a concern.
I finally, with some difficulty, disengaged from the fascination and made my way down the Champs Elysées. I suppose I expected to see elegant carriages and arrogant boulevardiers, the image I still carry from the film, Gigi, but it was just another park-lined avenue, with nobody there but me. I got as far as the sight of banners proclaiming an Art Nouveau exhibit, a personal passion that can sway me in any direction, anytime. Locating it, however, was another matter. I found the door to an art museum, paid the entry fee of $3.85, and discovered I had bought a thorough-going exhibit of Georges Seurat with bi-lingual courtesies. I would not have known how to ask for my money back, so I stayed, and learned more about Seurat and his work than I ever wanted to know.
THAT EVENING, I had to move along to my third Paris host located in a quaint neighborhood south of the Seine, not too far from the Eiffel Tower. The crosstown routine was beginning to feel like London in September, though it had none of the earlier anxiety. Marielle was expecting me, of course. She lived in a second-floor apartment, which at first struck me as modest but then turned out to have enormous rooms, almost large enough for her enormous collection of books and ephemera. She was a lifelong student of people and cultures, with an insatiable urge to collect. An Italian dinner awaited my arrival, with the usual wine, and - as we ate - the usual getting-to-know-you of GN hospitality. Her English was good, almost without accent.
On the high side of her forties, Marielle felt mired in a daily office grind, a job that limited the pursuit of her intellectual leanings. Her life, in fact, seemed an uneasy truce between its practical demands and her personal commitments. I could feel the resentment, and I could certainly identify with it. I hoped I might find a good opening for some positive input from my own background.
She was off to work very early in the morning, leaving a key with me so that I could sleep as late as I wished and come and go at will. A place to myself for awhile offered a relaxing break from both sightseeing and sociability, and I idled my morning time almost entirely away. It was my last full day in Paris, though, and there were a couple must-see items on my agenda. I took the closest one first - the Rodin Museum - and set out for it, walking, despite the wet day. Something between a heavy mist and a light drift of rain was being teased and played with by breezes that were starting to get serious.
The museum is at Rodin's old estate and workshop and holds the largest collection of his work, along with that of his increasingly recognized protegé, Camille Claudel. It was an impressive collection, and I spent two or three hours browsing there. Strangely, the work of his I liked most wasn't done in the massive, brooding style we associate with Rodin. It was a very early work, while he was yet a student: the study of a young woman in a spring hat - a light-hearted effort, radiant and lovely, that perfectly captured the freshness of her youth - and as surely expressed his own.
The day, weatherwise, had become a disaster. Regrettable, but there was no way that I was going to miss the final item on my agenda. After all, the Eiffel Tower, 102 years old, has to be the most singular attraction in all of Europe, a devotional pilgrimage, at least once, for even the most jaded tourist. Well, okay . . . a necessary lapse for the most devout anti-tourist.
By the time I got there, all I could see was the base of it: four great tower legs squaring an entire city block. Above, they faded into an impenetrable mist. A day like this was for the truly devoted - a surprisingly large crowd, as it turned out. We clustered around various bits of shelter waiting for the tilted elevator that inches up the tower leg at an angle. Four such elevators, one for each leg, are on hand, but only one runs on weekdays. I bought a middle level ticket for $5.15 - a bad choice, but I couldn't know it until my options were gone. Another $2.75 would have taken me clear to the top. But it was perfectly obvious there'd be no decent view at any level, this day. In the circumstances, I figured I had the day's best price for being able to say, "I was up the Eiffel Tower." Never mind the near-zero visibility of it.
And then I discovered the true cost of a poor man's bargain: the crowd that stood waiting for the elevator to take them back down. Twice as many people as the creeping thing had room for, standing out in the wet - a jet-stream at this altitude - so as not to lose their place in line. Fifteen minutes in the wind-driven drizzle, and then the agony of seeing the elevator door shut before I could reach it. I didn't dare go back into the sheltered part of the platform lest I miss the next one, too. `The next one,' of course, would be the same one - after it had gone all the way down, then back to the top, and finally returned on its way down again. Twenty minutes more, and no choice but to stand in this crowd, in a whipping spray that had already soaked through my rain gear. The $2.75 differential, I now understood, was for a useless trip dry, instead of a useless trip wet and miserable.
For my last Paris dinner with Marielle, I brought back two huge artichokes, and as she prepared them along with a pot of pasta we fell into some rather serious discussion on the purposes and meaning of Good Neighbors hospitality. It began quite innocently with my idle observation that it was possible to travel on far less money than the travel industry would have one suppose. I was quick to add that this was due in no small part to the blessing of Good Neighbors. And Marielle was equally quick to point out that GN was a friendship and exchange network, not just a device for cheap travel.
Suddenly, I found myself uncomfortably on the defensive. I could hardly deny that cheap travel was a large part of my purpose, and for me a necessity. But admitting this seemed to tar me with a stain of `irresponsibility,' in Marielle's perspective.
It was an old challenge in new clothes. Having dropped out from the career world in mid-stream, I had many times, over the years, been charged with pursuing a wayward life; and I'd certainly had my own doubts to deal with, over it. Nobody grew up in mid-century America without receiving a ramrod-strong dose of what it means to live responsibly. Thoreau, my inspiration in such matters, might have been a voice of conscience for us, but no one ever took seriously his spare version of the simple life.
It was a far wider issue for me than Marielle's immediate concerns, however, and I wasn't at all sure I could respond without bringing in a lot of old baggage.
"Well, the way I see it," I began, uneasily, "I am involved more fully with my hosts than merely by an exchange of viewpoints. I make them partners in my journey, in a very real fashion . . . I bring them a sense of truly helping me."
"Yes, like the - how you call it? - the pan-handler, the alms-seeker, brings a sense of goodness to refresh those burdened with wealth?" She smiled as she said it, but it was clearly intended to cut through my self-justification.
"You could see it that way, I suppose, but it's more than a `sense of goodness.' Friendship is caring, and caring grows from more meaningful connections than just a polite and distant hospitality."
"That may be true," she came back, thoughtfully, "but it has to go two ways; it cannot happen when one has all the giving, and the other all the receiving."
"But that's not a fair measure, Marielle. The traveler, by his very nature, is on the receiving end, always. You are suggesting that it is somehow more so if he travels in actual need of what the host provides. I say it makes the transaction more real, the generosity more meaningful."
"And also more of a charity," she shot back. "It can make the host feel like she has no choice but to help, which upsets all the good work being done."
The artichokes came out of the boiling water, now, and as she drained them over the sink I took a moment to clarify my thinking on this whole thing. She was making a critical issue of the exchange that takes place between host and guest, and it became the only avenue for any legitimacy I could seek. What was it, after all, that I offered, as my end of the transaction?
"Actually, Marielle, a traveler like me brings a very unique gift to the host. A gift that could hardly be conveyed except by the way I travel." A sudden shift of her eyes toward me registered either interest or resistance, I wasn't sure. "I'm a living example that it can be safe to move outside the boundaries of security and certainty, and live a more free and fulfilling life."
It was a risky claim, to walk out on the limb of this argument with, and I knew it the minute she began her response. "Oh, so easy to say," and she let a slight pause precede the rest, "but it's just a rationalization. In America you can make such choices, but the daily reality here, and in most of the world, doesn't permit living by whim. You bring a gift nobody here can use." And then her final observation, a gratuitous coup de grace, "You are just an American who could not travel without using our hospitality."
Yes, I thought to myself, this is the ultimate rejoinder, in one form or another. To Americans, I can live this way because I'm single and without `responsibilities' (our self-serving euphemism for confining commitments). To a European, I'm able to do it because I'm an American - white and male, as is often further added. There was no way to put my sense of it across to her without pulling all the stops.
"Look, Marielle . . ." I searched for the words, "I wouldn't have come to Europe if no path had opened for me. I would simply have accepted that it was not my trail."
"You see? You admit it couldn't be done without taking advantage of these hospitality offerings."
"No, you don't hear me. Whether a path opens for me, or not, doesn't matter. Either way, it's my cue; the trail goes one way, or it goes another. Only on the surface does it look like I live by whim. I follow the cues of Providence. When I didn't get a job in London, that was as much a gift of Providence as if I had found one."
"That's crazy! We can't live that way here. We have to go through rejection after rejection until we finally get a job, in order to pay the bills. There isn't any other choice . . . except for those on public charity."
I was sorry I let myself get drawn into it. But committed, now, and feeling the anger rise, at her failure to hear me, I took a deep breath and went on. "Public charity, pan-handling, hospitality, income . . . why do we put these labels on what Providence brings? They only cloud the fact that our necessities are provided. And look what the cloud does to us: good money and bad money, decent ways to get it and indecent ways. Staying pure becomes obsessive. It turns life into a struggle. But life is a gift, Marielle, a daily blessing. Why make a struggle of it?"
"So how do you get around it," she asked, with more pain than exasperation in her rising voice . "How do you get around what you have to struggle with every day?"
"By taking whatever comes. Taking whatever comes, and considering it your proper portion, your gift . . . your message, perhaps, if it doesn't feel like a gift, or your directional signal. I'm your gift, Marielle, just as you're mine. The only problem anyone has ever had with Providence is that we think we're entitled to more, or better - and so we struggle to obtain it."
There was nothing further said by either one of us for a long while, and then the subject was entirely different. It had felt more like a stalemate, than any shift in her point of view. Then late that night, drifting toward sleep, I wondered about my own point of view. Marielle, after all,was my gift. Should I be looking at something in that discussion? Perhaps at how I had let her push my buttons?
She had, in fact, sensitized me to the delicacy of the host/traveler relationship, a realization that ultimately led to my decision to cloak the name of this hospitality network with the pseudonym of Good Neighbors.
MY FRIDAY DEPARTURE had been planned at midweek while I was staying with Josette and Jean-Pierre. I would take the train north to Lille, my last stop in France, where a host awaited, already confirmed by telephone. Since I knew the schedule, and everything was arranged, I saw no need to hurry. I lingered for a final leisurely taste of Parisian neighborhood flavor - not realizing that my rail discount went off at noon. I had read all about how the French railway system gives no discounts during the 24-hour period that begins at noon on Friday. I read it on my first day in Paris, in my valuable Traveller's Survival Guide. And then I promptly forgot about it. I got to the Gare du Nord an hour past noon, and had to pay $23.20 for my ticket instead of the $11.60 my Europ Senior Rail Card entitled me to.
The pointless waste accounted for nearly all of what I overspent, that week in Paris. My expenses came to $115.37, and the two-week average now stood at $108.34. It was hardly a tragedy, but I was infuriated at myself for the stupid lapse responsible for it, and sank into a foul mood for the afternoon's journey. The funk lasted until we were about an hour out of Paris, when it was interrupted by the small, mocking voice from somewhere inside me. It sounded remarkably like me:
"Marielle," it cooed softly, "don't you realize that Providence is everything that happens to us . . . !"
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