“It is a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.” – Somerset Maugham
“I think we should live here one day.”
“OK” he said. “Maybe when we retire”
“No, darling, I mean now, or soon. When we are young. Let’s dream. Let’s make it happen. Life is too precious not to.”
It seems that the last few times that I have been under-the-weather for no apparent reason, major epiphanies have occurred. Is it that the body, or mind, are so pushed to the limit that the spirit becomes very clear? Is it that the mind, which is usually so willing to take over on everything actually gets quieted down as a result of the body’s going into its healing mending mode? Is it that there is a continued source of pearls of wisdom, or intuitions, that glow within us, and try to lead us to where we are supposed to be, but they are less active on being involved in our day-to-day activities, and prefer to guide us towards major life changes? And so when we are thrown off of our normal patterns or behaviors, these gems that guide us towards the truth, or our truth, are suddenly very apparent & help us see the direction we should be heading?
Let me back-up. We had a dream. Humbly nowhere near a certain someone’s, but it was our dream. Our dream to live in France. No, wait. It actually started with Italy, but that is another story. Or is it? They are actually quite inter-related, woven together as such. As most events in life are. More difficult to see when these events are trying to weave themselves together in the present; but in retrospect, they always marry, as if pre-arranged, and fall together in harmony, as if utterly meant to be.
So is it the dream, or the being under-the-weather-and-seeing-things-clearly that is the subject here? Definitely the dream.
Trying to pin-point where and when it actually formed would be an impossibility because it started somewhere early in youth, as a feeling, a draw to a country that was not the one I was born into. But as for the dream that was created with the one I love, that would be Italy. Como. 1999, the year we got engaged. It would also be our first trip to Europe together. We were so green. So young. But to see now what we were able to visualize and articulate back then, considering where we were at that point in our lives, I realize that perhaps we were able to see things more clearly than I give us credit for. Either that, or a powerful message was resonating at the core of our hearts and made it very clear what we envisioned for ourselves, and our life. And it was not to live the rest of our lives in America and that was pre-9-11.
It was our sabbatical holiday. Three weeks in Europe. Start September 1st in Paris, the city where I had studied abroad during my university years, and where I’d had a coup-de-coeur, love at first sight, from the very first time I stepped foot into he country. And that was at the airport before even making it into Paris. We’d start the trip in the city of light where we would try to get into the time zone, and take in cette merveille d’une ville, la plus belle ville dans le monde.
Together. We walked along the Seine in the Indian summer light and warmth and feel her softened air was kissing our skin. The myriad of fragrances were muted, but still pronounced.
We walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg, the garden that I traversed on a daily basis on my way from La Sorbonne Paris IV to L’Insitute Catholique on rue d’Assas. The leaves on the trees were perfuming all of Paris in a smooth delicate musk that filled one’s entire being.
We walked by fountains and immense flowerbeds. Their beauty and grace were enough to make our hearts swell. We admired classic and contemporary sculptures scattered throughout. Some of the very modern pieces seemed quite out-of-place, but we stood there anyway and observed, trying to find the reason a curator had decided to put that very piece there. Often we could not find one. But it did not really matter, and we enjoyed the wild contrasts, the yin-yang-ness of it all. That was life, right? There will be moments of light & dark, ups & downs, beauty & less beauty. There will not always be a reason for everything, but it does seem to fit all together. At some point. Sometimes while it is happening. And quite often, to me anyway, in retrospect.
We stood in front of La Fontaine Medici and embraced. The shaded draping garlands of lière, or ivy, was the darkest of greens and offered a sort of cooling effect and respite.
We traversed the big fountain in front of Le Senat and went up one set of the majestic stairs that are crowned with voluptuous Greek-shaped urns with geranium spilling out. There were flocks of people practicing their martial arts, Qi Gong, Aikido, Tai-Chi and some I did not recognize.
We saw a cloud of dust and went to see what it was. Ponies and donkeys with petite and stylish children perched on top.
We sat on two of the legendary aniseed green metal chairs under the shade of a tree and listened to all the sounds. Pétanque balls hitting the wooden perimeters of the playing area, sing-song voices conversing, birds chirping, tennis balls being hit back and forth, and the joyous sounds of children playing. And even the murmurs of these chairs created in 1923 in the Paris parks department workshops. These chairs had so many tales to tell, if only one would listen. Tales of proposals. Tales of make-ups and break-ups. Tales of sadness and tales of joy. Tales of comings and goings. Tales of this magical & wondrous thing called life.
We traversed the chic 6ème to the more discreet 7ème to another place of quiet beauty, le musée Rodin. Here we took in the passionate sculptures of Rodin in the most delightful of gardens. It seemed to breathe with life, and was so very soothing to revisit this place that had touched me so eleven years earlier. It was a perfect place to relax after a few days of being in the heart of Paris with her pulsing energy & stimulation.
But aside from the highlight of this musée and jardin, there was an undeniable thrill & comforting familiarity about getting out feet back into le 6ème, or sixth arrondisement. For this was the area I remembered most vividly from being a student, and the place that I envisioned to be dreamy to be able to live in. One day, but preferably as an adult and certainly not on a school loan.
The twenty-year old that I was at the time could have envisioned my entire life from there on out, in Paris, the place where I felt more “me” than anywhere else in the world. There were options, or possibilities let’s just say. Ones that could have been very luxuriant.
I’d always been told I was a strong girl. A little soldier as Dr. Brown used to say. But one thing I knew was that I was not strong enough to endure feigned love or settling for a false sense of security in marrying someone who was not the one. Just to not be alone. Because in the end, with of all the ones who were not “the one,” I’d felt more lonely with them than when I was alone. And there was that sense of not feeling épanouie, as the French like to say. To be épanouie is to be radiant, beaming, blooming or full-blown. And if I never got to bloom, I’d be selling myself out essentially because of lack of faith. And that, that would have meant death. So “the ones,” “the options,” they were not the right ones, and there were other things that had to come first, as if a need to follow each step on the path of a labyrinth.
The Petite Parisienne-abroad knew that there was a need to go back to America, to be patient, to have faith, and go through all of the hoops and hurdles until the right door opened up and presented itself. There was a sense of knowing that it existed, and that I would recognize it when I was standing before it. And that I would find The One that I was to go on the journey with.
Stephen. And back to Paris in the sixième we are. We passed leisure moments in the bistros and cafés talking about what it would be like to live here one day. What would we do? How would we spend our moments? It seemed like a fantasy, and yet one that was not out of our reach, even though at the time we were both in full-blown careers in the high-tech field with our future plans set on buying our first home, getting married, building our future, and doing what young couples do.
But there was this spark, this compulsory thing about what being in Europe did to us. Taking a good look at how it made us feel was undeniable.
After a satiating séjour in Paris, we got on with our three-week journey. There was still so much in our plans. We would take the high-speed TGV to Avignon. From there we would rent a car and go explore the small villages of Provence that I had gotten a taste of at the end of the Paris chapter, and had the chance to see with a young woman so eloquently named France. She was the daughter of the French couple I lived with at 86 Blvd Flandrin, 75016 Paris, the address would remain forever imprinted in my mind. Although it was only eleven years later, it felt like a lifetime, or many chapters anyway.
Stephen and I had studied our travel books for almost six months prior to the trip, which conveniently turned a three-week trip into six months and three-week trip with all the envisioning of ourselves already there. We’d put trust in the Cadogan Guide, the good old faithful Michelin Guide, and the more photographically visual Insight Guide. I’d also marked up Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” pretty thoroughly. We chose each place on our itinerary for specific reasons: Bonnieux, Lacoste, Menèrbes, Avignon, Arles, Les Baux, Gordes, Fontaine des Vaucluse and Egalières.
We intentionally would skip Aix-en-Provence. A curious decision considering my former art history teacher, who became a dear friend and altered the course of my path in life, had lectured passionately about Aix-en-Provence. But we had thought “University town, too busy, let’s skip it.” After Paris, we’d had small villages in mind. Funny how Aix-en-Provence would come into play later on, and send another jolt, another life-changing “let’s live here moment” through our world later on. But for now, back to the villages, none of them disappointed. Each one was quintessentially Provençal, more charming and picturesque than I could have remembered, as well as welcoming and relaxing after a busy culture-filled few days in Paris.
After a week in Provence, we’d catch a train in Nice. Exhaustion was setting in and we busily searched out an épicerie or restaurant where we could lighten our pockets of the remaining French francs and get provision for the overnight trip to Italy. Venice. It was a slow train and a long ride with countless stops in what seemed like every village along the way. It would be a lie to say that we got any real sleep in our little bunk beds, but we laughed a lot as we mocked the books that we were reading, and talked about the myriad of experiences that we’d had thus far, and were only half way through our trip. By the time the train made its bumpy & jerky way along its tracks and finally slid into its destination, Venice, it felt like we’d pulled an all-nighter. I guess because we had. Just minus the things that we used to consume when doing so.
We arrived at l’aube de la journée – dawn, daybreak, sunrise. It was magnificent! The sky presiding over Venice ranged from a soft powdery blue to pink to yellow to orange. It resembled every shade of sherbet in it’s more glorified purity all melding into the other. We got off the train and settled into one of the nicer hotels that we would stay at during the trip. It felt regal and very Venetian with its light blue velvet and gold décor. The bed looked fit for a king & queen, the walls were padded with opulent satiny fabric, and there were tassels everywhere to secure the drapery. One could almost sense the frolicking that took place here over the last few hundreds of years. If I closed my eyes I could almost hear a delicate harpsichord and the sounds of young women of a time passed giggling and smell the pheromones of the men flirting with them in the confines of these walls.
We stepped out into the fresh morning air and started walking. The remarkable thing about Venice is that you can not get lost, although from the miraculous ways one can avoid the hoards of tourists, one could feel as good as lost. The small intimate alleys and walkways off of big piazzas and squares are usually empty and make you feel like you are on a theater stage. The beauty was intoxicating and we were high off a blend seeing such artistry and exquisiteness combined with a lack of sleep.
A line that came up just about every hour or two was: “What time is it? I think it is cappuccino, espresso or gelato time.” At that point we were too naive to know that any self-respecting Italian would not dream of a cappuccino after 11 am. A beverage with milk for a grown adult may as well be considered sacrilege. But here was no reason to hold back. Italian café, with milk or no milk, gelato, and crunchy not-too-sweet biscotti must be relished in when one can. And we did.
The rest of the trip unfolded with ease and adventure. A few days in Venice provided us with a good fill of romance, beauty and history. To balance this out, we’d joke about using the Shriek Alarm, a 138 decibel gas-powered self-defense product in the shape & size of a breath freshener spray. Ideal place would have been in Piazza Saint Marco for the mere shock value of seeing thousands of tourists simultaneously jump out of their sock-clad Teva or Birkenstock sandals. The ones that Rick Steves would have recommended for their comfort when traveling, and would conveniently “blend in” with the locals if bought in a neutral shade of beige. Of course it would have been fascinating to see millions of pigeons all take flight simultaneously.
We’d traversed one hundred and one foot bridges, visited almost as many churches, and thankfully succeeded in finding restaurants, or cantines, where the locals dined. We’d spotted out two worker-types in their paint-stained overalls and followed them. They led us to the typical Italian lunch spot which was simple, straight forward and a delight to fall upon among the countless tourist restaurants with their menus posted outside in English in big bold font, then German, and then finally Italian. We took a fond appreciation of one restaurant in particular. We were welcomed with a “Buongiorno Signor, Signorina” and then immediately arrived at a counter with colorful family style dishes behind the glass counter. A tall rugged chef with a blue bandana covering his handsome forehead and shaved head took our orders from over the counter. Their selections of the day were all seasonal, and prepared elegantly as the Italians do it so well. A few primi to choose from, then pasta that would be perfectly al dente and not too saucy. A simple meat or fish would follow, along with a healthy assortment of bright seasonal veggies. This would all be followed by a fresh fruit salad or pineapple, their favorite to aid in digestion, or a nice almond or fruit tort. And finally, a thimble of café prepared with utter perfection. We sat among the Italians and did not hear a word of English. Jackpot.
The Peggy Guggenheim museum was a highlight, both in 1988 and as much on this trip with Stephen. Perhaps even more because I was in love which made everything more colorful and fragrant. The art collection was so exciting when juxtaposed with so much religious and medieval art. It all felt very fresh. We made our way to the terrace and sat by two majestic marble lions and watched gondolas cross the Grand Canal. We let the salty air moisten our skin and talked about whether this was, as the New York Times described it “The most beautiful city built by man,” or not. Beautiful, yes. But Paris had already stolen Stephen’s heart, as she had mine long ago.
Enjoying train travel as much as we did, it seemed a good way for us to get to Florence, where we would rent a car and make our way into the Tuscan countryside. Little mishap. The rental car office was closed. Improvise. Find a hotel and do a spontaneous night there. Get the car the next morning, look at the map and make our way to somewhere near San Gimignano. It seemed safe to leave this part of the trip open to spontaneity as long as we had the opening of the voyage all reserved in Paris, and the closing few days along the sparkling waters of Lake Como securely locked in. Finding and going to check out small hotels, B & Bs and agroturismos in the countryside ended up taking practically a full day, but we are masters of optimism and most often take the most pleasure in the journey, so it all worked out.
We decided finally on a tiny house that was recently built on a beautiful vineyard that also had an olive farm. There was a simple swimming pool, but it looked absolutely luxuriant to us nestled on a plateau among the olive trees. The owner did not speak English, and at the time, I did not speak Italian, but as we humans can, we communicated what needed to be, and all were in accord. Cicadas, soft Tuscan air, warm sun, and a place to just be for a few days after feeling like our bodies had been through so much movement on planes, trains & in automobiles.
What a treat to have a kitchen for the first time in about ten days. To be able to make our tea and café when we felt like it and not during a hotel’s designated breakfast hours, and most of all, to not have to put oneself together first thing in the morning. We would get to see all of the places that we had chosen from our books: San Gimignano, Sienna, Cortona with time and space to drive in the countryside with complete serendipity. Rain was said to be on the way so we relished in laying in the shade of those olive trees and jumping in the pool while we could at the end of each day. We were the only ones there and it felt like some sort of paradise that had been carved out for us. Our breath were deep.
The weather people were right. The rain started falling on that last night. We had planned to stay in, make dinner with goods procured at a local outdoor market, pack, play scrabble and read anyway. By morning, it was coming down in buckets. Sheets. Il pleuvait des cords as they say en Français. Stephen put the bags in the trunk, I closed up the apartment and we made our way to the Autostrada. I did not mind driving as I usually welcome a challenge. But this! A two-lane highway with people racing past at 180 kilometers an hour, including 18 wheelers. Waves of water hit the windshield every time they whooshed by, and our vehicle was hydroplaning at 160 kilometers per hour. Intense, but not scary. Somehow it felt like we were being guided. I think sometimes we like to believe in angels as they have a way of making us feel better about things. Protected in a way. But this day? It felt as if something much bigger than ourselves was orchestrating the whole thing.
It took a bit longer than we had planned, but we arrived in Bellagio, in tact, just as the rain was letting up. Bellagio was the place that I had only read about up until this trip. But it had captivated my curiosity. Famous writers had made it sound even better than sublime with descriptions of lake-side villas and gardens with their flowers over-flowing into the sparkling lake. I was drawn to the beauty, and It seemed like the perfect place to culminate three weeks of exploring a dizzying number of cities & villages.
Getting there proved to be yet another unexpected challenge. Anyone who knows Bellagio knows that it is at the part of a “Y” where the “V” part meets the descending tail of the “Y.” This was pre-GPS days, and we were going by the map in the Cadogan book. Not ideal, but it had worked thus far. However, in this case, if you start heading up the lake on one side of that V-part of the Y, but are not on the right side, you need to turn around, go back, and get to the right side. Hours later, we made it, tired and hungry, but still in good humor, all things considered.
We arrived at the very moment that the torrential rains stopped. The lake glimmered with tranquility. The sky was opened up into a bright blue and set off the grandeur of the Alps cradling this body of sparkling water.
We could see flowers spilling out of great big urns and jars on the palazzi that lined the border of lake. Colors were magnified in this light, and all of our senses felt heightened after the journey just to get there. It was soothing to feel the earth under our feet, and to hear the water just a few feet away splashing on the shore. Our entire beings were soothed and yet overwhelmed in the presence of such beauty.
A feeling came over me. Then and there. Something extraordinary and powerful. Something I recognized, but not entirely familiar. There was a sense that something was, or was to be, without it being that yet. But a knowing. A definite knowing. The words came tumbling out. I could not hold them back. I do not even know where they came from. What I mean is I did not think about them and then say them.
“I think we should live here one day.”
“OK” Stephen said. “Maybe when we retire.”
“No, darling, I mean now, or soon. When we are young. Let’s dream. Let’s make it happen. Life is too precious not to.”
“Joe asked if I wanted to run the Milan office. We could live in Como. It is less than an hour away.”
To be continued…
If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy Letters from Paris