It was a Wednesday, October 16, finally a gorgeous fall day after too much cold and rain over the past two weeks of my European travels. From atop the cupola of Sacre Coeur, I looked down at central Paris. My loneliness was medicated somewhat by the dazzling fall weather and a previous evening spent with Giselle, Paul and Laurence, in a big European capital where I was all but anonymous.
As I stood alone on the observation deck and looked off at the city in the distance my mind looked off into the future as well. After I saw Angelica in Tubingen I figured I would have about four more weeks to go to Spain and Italy and end up in Vienna. Once I got there I would have it licked and could arguably say that I had seen Western Europe, and make my way back to England and then back home to the States. It felt a bit unnerving to be planning all this further travel when another part of me just wanted to hop on a train and get my ass back to the States as quickly as possible. I pondered whether that option was undermining my coping with my situation or was instead a helpful crutch.
Finally descending from the dome through the labyrinth of staircases, I sat on a bench outside the church and composed a long letter to my mom, thanking her for offering to send me $100, but also sharing with her all my misgivings and ambivalence, in more intensity and depth than i had on the phone. It felt good to put all those negative feelings down on paper, particularly knowing that someone I cared about would at some point read them. Then I told her that when I got back to London for the flight home I would use the last of my money to buy Christmas presents for her, my dad and my brother, so I could “return as Santa claus”. I also promised again to write postcards every day or two to keep her up to date on where I was, and to write another letter if there was any major change in my mood, for better or worse. I reminded her to write me at the Madrid American Express office and send the money there as well.
That evening, back at my not so nice hostel, my desires were made manifest. Another American backpacker checked in. Amidst all the local guys living at the hostel as a semi-permanent residence, we gravitated to each other immediately. His name was Steve, was several years older than I was, and was tall and wiry, taller than me, with short curly light brown hair and very blue eyes. He was from Iowa and had come over to Europe about the same time I had and our paths had crisscrossed though not at quite the same time. We had dinner at the hostel, shared a bottle of cheap wine, and spent the evening walking the neighborhood and talking. He seemed smart, thoughtful and funny, and was definitely more gregarious and worldly than I was. He seemed impressed with me too, but kind of competitive as well, like I was his overachieving younger brother.
Since he was low on money, his plan was to leave Paris in a couple of days, hitchhike to Spain and spend his last two weeks there, where everything was particularly cheap, before flying back to the States. I told him I was headed to Spain as well and asked him if I could join him and we could travel there together. Though I had had the plan to see Angelica in Tubingen, I felt that I could not turn this opportunity down to again have someone to share my daily travels with. I told him I wanted to stay in Paris for four or five more days but he was anxious to leave. We compromised and agreed to leave Paris on Sunday morning, three days from now. In the meantime, I would write to Angelica to thank her again but tell her my change of plans.
That night as I pondered everything in my sleeping bag in the hostel’s male dorm room, I felt so relieved, happy that my adventure in Europe wouldn’t turn into a lonely pilgrimage to December. Though the solution was not permanent, we might travel together for just a week or two. But even if my negative feelings returned after that, at least I had won this battle. It was top priority that I find someone, and I had. I hoped Angelica would understand that it was necessary. I wrote in my journal…
So I’m back on my rails, careening into the future. I believe I always make the right decision so I do not worry about the other possibilities. It is the only way to live, with a self-fulfilling philosophy. So after 2 weeks in Spain, Steve will take off for the states. Then I will be on my own headed into Italy, Sicily and then to Austria. I realize now in perspective how in trouble I was yesterday. If I had continued alone, leaving Tubingen for Southern France and Spain would have been a real ordeal. Well it’s not worth considering right now. I’m back on the track and I should enjoy it. I am!
The next day was Friday and I devoted the day to going to the Louvre, since Saturday was lunch with Giselle and Sunday we were headed south. Steve had already been to the great museum, so I was on my own for the day which was fine.
The museum was a huge building in the shape of three sides of a rectangle that had been a palace where French kings had acquired and displayed their works of art. In the late 18th century it gradually transitioned from royal palace to art museum. It reminded me of the Hermitage in Leningrad, another royal palace turned museum, with its huge high ceilinged galleries and some of the biggest paintings I had ever seen. I noted that the Louvre’s main gallery was longer than a football field.
One of the first paintings I saw was Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, which unlike most of the other art in the place, had a section of a smaller gallery all to its own. I was struck by what a small underwhelming piece of art that it was and understood, given its fame, why it was not hung next to anything else. When you see it in an artbook it is generally the same size as paintings by Rubens or David, which in reality are massive canvasses that dwarf Da Vinci’s little portrait. Without its immense reputation, alongside other paintings you might just give it a quick look and think, “Oh that’s… nice” and move on without a second thought. On cursory look, me without a sophisticated art history eye, it was just a humble portrait of a woman with a sly smile on her face. I guess a more schooled artistic type would say it’s great craft was in its subtlety, but that was lost on me at age eighteen.
There was a bigger gallery filled with those massive canvasses of Rubens and David, the former’s hung on one wall and the latter on the opposite. I was intrigued by the differences between these two famous painters that my mom, the artist and art student, had told me about. Both were denizens of the French elite but in very different ways with very different sensibilities. Rubens appeared to make his livelihood painting oversized sycophantic portraits of rich gentry, sprinkled with fat indolent little cherubs, huge canvasses to match his clients’ egos and to earn him large commissions. Beyond his portraits, his scenes with multiple people often featured fleshy corpulent often naked or near naked women being either adored or ravished. The implied politics behind his works were that of class, opulence, indolence and the objectification of women.
David, on the other hand, seemed the more explicitly political animal, with paintings of legendary historical scenes full of tension and political implications. His “Oath of the Horatii”, depicted the settling of a dispute from a Roman legend between two warring parties, and was all about strength, solidarity and patriotism. His “Intervention of the Sabine Women” with its feminist overtones as beautiful half-naked women stop a battle between two ancient armies. And his great works as a propagandist for and depicting Napoleon Bonaparte as a general and an emperor.
There was a painting by Rembrandt that particularly caught and held my attention. It was called “The Philosopher Lost in Thought”, and the emotions captured were very deep and complex, with a dark spiral stairway in the background to somewhere above and the philosopher reposed in center ground appearing deep in meditative thought by a window letting in the light of day to an otherwise dark room.
Then there was a really spooky painting by Simon Vouet called “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple”. The majority of the painting is that realistically painted glorious religious stuff, including angels looking down from the ceiling, and the figures are very precise and clear. But right below baby Jesus in the focal point of the painting is a weird blurry disembodied head looking up at the baby.
This was the second day I had gone without eating lunch. My attempt, given my tight budget, to save some money on what for me was the most easily skipped meal, at least as long as I kept busy. I didn’t want to have to skimp so much in Spain and Italy where I understood things were cheaper and I could possibly live a bit more luxuriously. So why blow my money in the expensive countries. Spending the day roaming the galleries of one of the world’s greatest art museums worked pretty well in the keeping busy department. Plus the more of these great venues I could notch in my belt as having seen, the more bonafide my “European traveller” status would feel when I finally returned home.
When I reconnected with Steve at the hostel later on in the afternoon, we decided to check out another hostel on Rue Titon. It was a nicer, cleaner premises, more tightly run, and full of real travellers rather than homeless people. Steve took me to a Moroccan restaurant he had been to before for dinner. He ordered and we were served a big plate of their signature dish, couscous, with bits of chicken, fish and vegetables in a spicy sauce served on top of a big mound of what I assumed was a grain like rice, but would later learn was a type of pasta. We ate everything in sight while we listened to a big group of presumably North African expats have an animated argument in their version of French. The air of the place was filled with a smell of sweet tobacco. and Algerian music which was energetic but repetitive and kind of mesmerizing.
I enjoyed these exotic cuisines, having never been much of a culinary adventurer, eating my hometown’s standard American fare of hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza along with some ethnic German and standard Italian pasta dishes. My biggest gastronomical discoveries on my European odyssey so far had been yogurt in Switzerland, the Leberkäse that had made me sick in Munich, and the sardines I had had earlier today for lunch at Giselle’s. And of course all the wonderful beer that put the American stuff to shame.
We finished the day with a cheap bottle of wine at a little tavern type place across the street from our new residence. Tongues and thoughts loosened by the drink, we talked intensely for several hours about politics and the role our generation needed to play in transforming our country and the world. He was less political and more pessimistic than I, but he perhaps grudgingly appreciated my optimism, acknowledging that someone had to be optimistic or how would the world move forward. I felt again my own emerging sense of mission and activism, like Bublil back in Chur several weeks ago. I had brought my journal with me, one of those hard covered, college ruled theme books I had bought originally for my college classes but not used. Between the wine and the passionate discussion, and the typical realization that we had to get back to our hostel in five minutes before they lock us out, I managed to leave my journal behind when Steve and I headed back across the street.
The next morning, Saturday, with plans to have lunch with Giselle and family, I awoke unable to find my journal, and then with the awful realization that I had left it in the bar. Of all the difficult moments I had had during my odyssey so far, this was the worst. The journal had by then contained the past four weeks of my experiences and was nearly completely full. I realized that there was nothing that would be a greater loss. If someone stole all my clothes, my equipment, my money, my passport; if I still had my journal it would be okay. But to lose my journal would just about kill me, and at the thought of its loss my head started to ache like it would when I got a fever. I felt panicky.
I quickly stumbled out of bed and put on my clothes and headed back over to the tavern across the street. It wasn’t open yet which I took as a hopeful sign, though still there was this growing awful feeling in the pit of my stomach that it would be lost. I sat on a bench by the entrance and waited for what seemed like an hour but it was still closed, the hours not being posted on the door.
I finally thought to walk around to the alley in back and saw a North African guy in a dirty white apron hauling boxes of just delivered produce into the back door of the tavern. I ran towards him shouting and waving and he put down his produce box and looked at me quizzically. I explained the whole situation to him about my journal though he didn’t speak or seem to understand anything in English. When he was sure I had finished with my rant he looked me in the eyes, said something that I did not understand, and disappeared inside the back door, closing it behind him. The maybe five minutes I waited seemed interminable. I wasn’t sure whether he was looking or had just blown me off. My devastation increased until he reappeared with a grin on his face and my journal in his hand.
I was so grateful to him and to the universe that seemed to be looking out for me. With my non-linear mind I was not by nature a well organized person and thus prone to lose things carelessly. I had already lost my Swiss Army knife and its first replacement, plus those French Francs I must have left at the exchange booth at the train station in Givet when I first entered France. I said “Thank you” to him several times before realizing that a chorus of “Merci”s might be more effective. Walking back to the hostel clutching the thing, I realized that the way I carried it around with me during the day, so I could take spare moments to make entries rather than waiting until I returned to my residence, was problematic. But to wait until the evening to add an update, some important insights might be lost! I felt relieved but severely chastened.
I showed up for lunch at Giselle’s a little before noon, still basking in an intense sense of relief at having not lost my journal. She, Paul, the entrancing Laurence and I had a lunch of bread, sardines, and a kind of chicken, sausage and vegetable goulash. And of course wine, of which I had more than my share. I shared with them all my adventures since they dropped me off at the hostel Wednesday evening, Giselle translating and gesticulating for her husband and daughter.
When she finally managed to translate enough of my words and figure out my discomfort with the hostel she apologized profusely, though she did note that I had as a result had the success of finding someone to travel with. With some details in French from Laurence, who apparently had recently studied that history in her classes, Giselle did her best with her limited English to fill me in about Sacre Coeur’s infamous history from the point of view of people “de gauche”, on the left, like she was. And Gisella laughed approvingly when I told her my thoughts on the “Mona Lisa” and Rubens versus David. Once translated to French, Laurence also laughed at my comparison, touching me briefly on my shoulder as she sat next to me to register her approval. I looked at her and she smiled back at me warmly.
I ate and drank too much and felt kind of sick, having been a little queasy after eating the night before, and this morning, not helped any by almost losing my journal. Thankfully not bad enough to need to throw up like I had done in the backseat of Angelica and Helmut’s car back in Munich.
Finally I said my goodbyes, thanking them for the hospitality, Giselle apologizing yet again for the hostel. All three gave me a hug. In my own waspy world of Ann Arbor I was not used to men hugging each other. But for him it seemed so natural so I was happy to go with it, and realized that it was somehow more civilized. Laurence’s quick embrace put her body and particularly her breasts against my chest for a few short seconds. That and the earlier shoulder touch exchange was the extent of our fifteen seconds of any sort of intimacy! But fifteen seconds I remembered fondly for weeks after.
That night I felt better, and Steve and I and this British guy and South African young woman all went out to the Moulin Rouge district to walk around. The streets were crowded with people and all the strip joints were lit up garishly and invitingly. Though we did not have the money to venture inside any, maybe just as well, I actually enjoyed the glittery, slightly sexually sleazy in a lighthearted sort of way ambience of the boulevard.
At one point I was somewhat separated from the rest of my comrades and happened to look down a side street where I saw four young women in high heels, very short skirts, tank tops that featured their braless breasts, hair all dolled up and wearing lots of makeup all standing in kind of odd relaxed poses against the sides of buildings. One of them whistled at me and waved. I was starting to wave back when I realized they were obviously prostitutes, the likes of whom I had never seen before. With my libido percolating for several days now without any respite, and recalling Laurence’s body touching mine and the scent of her neck, I was momentarily like a deer in the headlights transfixed by this tall young woman with thin frame, long legs on platform heels, and frizzy blonde hair, waving at me and smiling.
When she finally called out to me in French, words that I could not parse but figured the gist of, I broke out of the trance, and uncomfortably, with sudden trepidation at whether my comrades or anyone else on the street besides the four of them were looking at me, turned my head and moved on out of their visual range. I knew from reading Portnoy’s Complaint, and an R-rated movie or two, that this was how some young men, had their first sexual experiences. I had been thinking more and more over my last year in high school, my first year in college, and my most recent summer, of how I could and would finally lose my virginity. There had been a number of young women during the past two years that might have been candidates to share that experience with. Several young women in my theater group during my high school senior year who had been attracted to me, plus a couple more in my college theater productions. But the fly in the ointment was always my own timidity. Thus I spent my last night in Paris and bade farewell to the big city and all its anonymous charms – historical, architectural, artistic, culinary and otherwise.
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