It was Friday October 18, a long month into my odyssey and finally a gorgeous fall day after too much cold and rain over the past couple weeks. It never ceased to amaze me how much Mother Nature and her climatic moods influenced, even controlled, my own. A sunny day could assuage a lot. From atop the cupola of Sacre Coeur, I looked down at central Paris, my loneliness also medicated somewhat by the previous evening spent with Giselle, Paul and the stunning Laurence. Just somewhat.
As I stood alone on the observation deck and my eyes looked off at the city in the distance, my mind looked off into my future in the distance as well. After I visited Angelica in Tubingen I figured I would have about five more weeks, to go to Spain and Italy and end up in maybe 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, maybe by way of Amsterdam, and then back home to the States. Of course, it felt a bit unnerving to be planning all this further travel when part of me just wanted to hop on a train and get my ass back to England and then fly back home as quickly as possible. I pondered whether to continue to consider that option of bailing, was undermining my coping with my situation, or perhaps instead providing a helpful escape valve.
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. I thanked her for offering to send me $100, but I also shared 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”. That was part of that whole triumphant world traveler thing. 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.
As the late afternoon sky began to darken, I realized that I was dreading going back to the hostel. Beyond the fact that nobody there so far had been part of my English speaking backpacker cohort, I sensed that the residents, who were mostly older white French men or younger non-white guys I presumed to be North African, were not travelers, but basically locals living there for lack of the means to live anywhere else.
Travelers had a certain expectant energy, like they were on the verge of encountering something new and exciting. The people staying at my hostel did not have that energy. Though some were having animated conversations in the common room, in French, they were mainly older and there was a tone and non-verbal of hard realities of life and blowing off steam, rather than the joy of discovering a beautiful city that was new to them. And when others had come in for the evening while I was in the common room, they looked like their day had been hard, or at best nothing more than the mundane same old same old. A few seemed to be drunk or high, more like zombies. A couple older white French guys had even used the few English words they seemed to know to ask me if I had any spare change. In each case I was uncomfortable enough that I decided the best strategy was to give them a couple francs and hope they wouldn’t pester me again. And the guys working at the hostel didn’t seem like they were really engaged in trying to make it a hospitable place, but were more just worker bees, going through the motions of their job, checking people in and answering questions, in French.
It wasn’t like I didn’t feel safe there. The staff and most of the people staying there seemed like they were trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy and decorum. And I really felt for all of them. I had never been homeless myself, but there had been days on my journey when I had felt like an anonymous nobody not sure where I was going to sleep. Imagine every day being like that.
As I reentered the hostel that early evening, paying my six francs for the night, I was hoping that I would see some other young backpacker types, fellow travelers like I had encountered in the hostels in Chur, Koblenz and Trier. But instead I surveyed the common room and it was pretty much the same cast of characters I had left in the morning. While I was sitting by myself taking it all in and fretting over my situation, another member of my cohort appeared and checked in. He was tall, maybe six three, with a big green metal framed pack on his back, light brown curly hair tumbling down over blue blue eyes, plaid flannel shirt, bell-bottom jeans and sneakers. I heard him try initially to speak English to the guy checking him in, before switching to a simplistic French. He saw me noticing him, and when he was done checking in immediately gravitated to where I was sitting alone at my table writing in my journal.
“Hey man, you look like you might actually speak some English”, he said, with a big grin lighting up his face and brushing his curly locks from his blue eyes. “God I hope I’m right!” I was taken immediately by his pluck and candor.
I chuckled and nodded, then sighed and replied, “I haven’t had a full on conversation with another human being in English for days!” That was a bit of an exaggeration actually, Giselle and I were not doing too too badly in our exchanges at yesterday’s dinner.
“You poor boy”, he said, his shoulders relaxing and his face showing a mock pout followed by shaking his head and laughing softly. He was obviously older than I was. I also noted that his smile was infectious, hard to resist.
He looked me up and down, nodding with that killer smile, and plopped down in the chair across from me at my little table.
“Nice ‘fro dude!” He had the audacity to brush his hand in front of my face and tossle a few of my curls with his fingertips. His brazen gesture felt like him asserting his alpha status in our new relationship, like he was some long lost older brother. I didn’t mind really. I liked the intimacy of the gesture, and I so wanted someone to really talk to and share stuff with.
“Thanks man”, I said and theatrically flashed my own biggest smile.
His name was Steve. But the way he introduced himself cracked me up.
“I’m Steve, by the way”, he said, making a silly face and holding out his right hand presumably to shake mine, but with his fingers spread and his palm down. I had not seen someone reach out for a handshake before in quite that way. I hesitated for just a moment on how to grasp his hand but then turned mine palm up, did so and shook it.
My shyness oddly nowhere to be found, I couldn’t resist teasing him by mimicking his phrasing and delivery, saying, “I’m Cooper”, and after pausing even longer than he had, “By the way”. Not sure what had gotten into me to be so cheeky, like I was teasing some old buddy. Or maybe a little of Miranda’s pluck had rubbed off on me. I noted that I was thinking of it as pluck at the moment instead of just obtuseness.
He scoffed and his eyes twinkled. “Okay dude”, he said, kind of chuckling out the words, getting that his intro might have been a little much. He frowned and I could see the gears in his mind spinning.
“Is that your first name?”
I nodded, and grinned too, but was surprised actually that I didn’t feel the need to go into a long explanation of how my mom named me Jonathan but did not want me called “John” or “Johnny”, and how my parents gave me different nicknames and “Cooper” somehow stuck. Yeah that’s my name dude, I thought.
“Okay”, he said in mock seriousness, then scrunched his nose as he contemplated my whole schtick. “Don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone with that for a first name. People call you ‘Coop’?”
“Sure”, I said brightly, smuggly even.
“Coop it is”, he said, trying to regain the momentum in the conversation. Then he asked, “You had dinner?”
I shook my head.
“I’d suggest we go to a local dining establishment, but my funds are lacking.” Then he flashed that smile. “Unless your buying.”
I almost said yes, until my thriftiness overcame his charm. Instead I said, “Well, I’ve got some food in my backpack I can share.”
He nodded, resigned, “Yeah me too. Let’s see what I’ve got in my pack. Potluck I guess.”
We both started pulling the squirreled away provisions out of our packs. He had a loaf of bread and a plastic jug of wine. He held one in each hand to show me. I pulled out a half package of crackers, some sliced salami and a hunk of hard cheese, and arranged them on the little table between us.
“Ooo doooood”, he cooed, stretching it out, “What kind of cheese? Is that Jarlsburg?”
I grinned and nodded.
“Dooooood”, stretching it out even a bit further, “I fucking LOVE Jarlsburg!” He rolled his eyes as he said the word “love”.
“Me too”, I said possessively, hunching my shoulders, “But I’ll share”, I said flashing another big grin. I pondered what had gotten into me.
He cocked his head to the side and gave me a look of mock fierceness. “You better man, if you want any of this FINE vintage!” He plunked the big plastic jug on the top of our little table, and it reverberated with a dull wobbly indolent thud.
So we ate and talked, me slicing of hunks of my sweet yellow cheese and offering every other one up for him, and both of us passing and drinking straight from his jug. Getting a little tipsy, he became curious how old I was, and when I told him I was 18 he shook his head and said I was “such a babe”. He was 23, five years older than I was. 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. After finishing our makeshift dinner, including the entire jug of his pink wine, we proceeded to spend the rest of the evening walking the neighborhood, buzzing on the alcohol and talking about this, that, and everything.
He was smart, thoughtful and funny, and was definitely more gregarious 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 the morning, hitchhike to Spain, and spend his last two weeks there, where everything was particularly cheap, before flying back to the States. After our long tour of the neighborhood and free flowing conversation, he asked me if I wanted to join him.
Even though I had had the plan to see Angelica in Tubingen, I felt that I could not turn down this opportunity to again have someone to share my daily travels with. So I immediately said yes, but told him I wanted to stay in Paris for a few more days. He offered a compromise, and we agreed to leave town on Sunday morning, two days from now. In the meantime, I would write to Angelica to thank her again, but tell her my change of plans.
That night, cozy in my sleeping bag in the hostel’s male dorm room, him in the bunk next to me, I revisited everything that had happened that day. I felt so relieved that my remaining sojourn in Europe wouldn’t be a completely lonely pilgrimage to December. Though my new travel companion was not permanent, still we might be able to travel together for a week or two. And even if my lonesomeness returned when we finally parted company, at least I had survived this current crisis. Sometimes you don’t fully comprehend how bad something is until it is finally resolved. 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 don’t worry about the other possibilities. It’s the only way to live, with a self-fulfilling philosophy. So after two 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 track and I should enjoy it. I am!
The next day was Friday and my plan was to see the Louvre, since Saturday was lunch with Giselle and Sunday Steve and I were planning to head 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 public 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 just inside the museum entrance 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 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 canvases that dwarf Da Vinci’s little portrait. Without its immense reputation, if it were on the gallery wall next to other larger paintings, you might just give the small canvass a quick look and think, “Oh that’s… nice” and move on without a second thought. On a 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 Da Vinci’s great craft was in the portrait’s subtlety, but that was lost on me. Actually my mom had not been much of a Da Vinci fan either, artistically schooled as she was. Portraiture and representational painting was not her thing, unless it somehow “worked” abstractly as well.
Then there was a bigger gallery filled with those massive canvasses of Rubens and David, the former’s hung on one wall and the latter’s on the opposite. With that stark physical juxtaposition, I was intrigued by the differences between these two famous painters, that my mom had told me about. Both painters 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 canvases to match the size of his clients’ egos and to earn him large commissions. Beyond his portraits, his scenes with multiple people often featured fleshy corpulent 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, displayed beautiful half-naked women, strong an sinewy and not fleshy and corpulant like Reubens, stopping a battle between two ancient armies. And his great works as a propagandist depicted Napoleon Bonaparte as a general and an emperor. Though David’s canvasses were thoroughly representational, my mom loved many of his paintings because she said they also worked abstractly, he had a great sense of “negative space”.
There was a painting by Rembrandt that particularly captured my extended attention. It was called “The Philosopher Lost in Thought”, and the emotions it conveyed were very deep and complex. There was an evocative dark spiral stairway in the background, going to somewhere above, and the philosopher reposed in center ground in front of the staircase appearing deep in meditative thought by a window letting in the light of day to an otherwise dark room. More so than the other pictures I’d seen it pulled me right into the canvass and its time and place. I was that medieval thinker, pondering a world that was so caught up in religious conformity and authoritarian power, wondering what the world would be like half a millennium later.
Then there was a really spooky canvass by Simon Vouet called “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple”. The majority of the thing was 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. It was disturbing really, like the face didn’t fit the rest of the painting, and what the fuck was the artist trying to tell us. You can’t just paint a painting celebrating this special child without adding this discordant and cautionary note? It almost looked like the picture had been defaced.
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 of the day, 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 of course the more of these famous 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 returned to the hostel late in the afternoon, I found Steve sitting in the common room by the entrance with his backpack next to him, his sleeping bag rolled up and bungied to the bottom of its metal frame. Ready to pay for my admission for another night, I looked at him curiously.
He studied me for a moment and finally said, “There’s another hostel not too far from here on Rue Titon. I called and they have space. Let’s get the fuck out of here. Don’t know if it’s any better than this place but can’t be much worse, right?”
“Indeed”, I said nodding. That word the Brits loved and I was developing a crush for myself.
I quickly went up to the bunkroom and stuffed everything into its designated spot in my pack, jammed my sleeping bag into its sack, lashed it to the frame at the bottom of my pack. My big clunky hiking boots dangling from a top corner of the frame, I returned to the common room. It was a short walk to a bus. A maybe ten minute bus ride and then another short walk up Rue Titon to the hostel. We walked in and immediately could see it was a better place for us. There were others checking in with their backpacks, and more of our big haired cohort sitting or milling around the common room with that expectant traveler energy that had been so missing at our previous digs. The main room had windows looking out onto a nice looking alley, and the staff were locals but twenty something and seeming much more engaged and hospitable. We booked our beds and stowed our packs on our bunks, again right next to each other.
It turned out to be a friendlier, cleaner premises, more tightly run, and full of real travelers rather than local people who had nowhere else to sleep. We were both glad to get out of that place we’d been staying, Steve noting that it was “so damn depressing”. Again, sometimes you don’t know how uncomfortable you are in a place until you finally can leave it behind.
To celebrate our move to better quarters, Steve convinced me to go with him to a now nearby Moroccan restaurant for dinner, that he had been to once before. He said he’d be willing to pay half from his limited funds, because it was so inexpensive. The air of the place was filled with the smell of sweet tobacco and Algerian music which was energetic but repetitive and kind of mesmerizing. 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 men have an animated argument in their version of French. My new travel partner and I split the bill which was pretty cheap for even a cheap Parisian restaurant. Cheap restaurants with passable or even better food were a treasure to us backpacker types, an opportunity to have, particularly at dinnertime, an actual hot freshly cooked meal rather than just cobbled together room temperature grocery store food items. Not that there was much that could top a tin of oily, garlicky sardines and a fresh loaf of bakery bread to sop up the leftover oil.
I enjoyed these exotic cuisines, having never been much of a culinary adventurer back home, eating the standard American fare of hot dogs, hamburgers, BLTs, 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 and granola in Switzerland, the Leberkäse that had made me sick in Munich, and the sardines I had gotten turned on to in Mainz and had eaten regularly since, including earlier today for lunch at Giselle’s. Being in tins, it was also meat that lasted longer than even hard salami, basically for years. And of course I LOVED 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. Seemed we liked getting drunk together, tongues and thoughts loosened by the alcohol. Among other topics, we had a long discussion about music, which seemed almost obligatory with any new significant acquaintance of our generational cohort. He acknowledged of course the Beatles, how could you not? He was not so much for Simon and Garfukel, saying Simon’s lyrics were “too much whining and obsessing over spilt milk… get on with life dude!” Not into Alice Cooper, who was too “sophomoric” for him. We found common ground with David Bowie and the whole emerging British glam rock scene. Mark Bolan, Mott the Hoople, Queen, Sweet and particularly for him, Roxy Music, whose lead singer and songwriter Brian Ferry was Steve’s idol.
Inspired enough by Ferry’s lyrics, and drunk enough to spontaneously break out in song, though it was way out of context for the little tavern, he gazed into my eyes and with a nicely quavery voice imitating Ferry’s, sang me the first verse of Roxy’s latest big song, “The Strand”, which I had heard a few times on WABX…
There’s a new sensation
A fabulous creation
A danceable solution
To teenage revolution
Do the Strand love
When you feel love
It’s the new way
That’s why we say
Do the Strand
As a performer myself, and making allowances for our alcoholic lubrication, I accepted the intimacy of the lyrics sung passionately to me, even the “Do the Strand love” line, as nothing beyond an in character line reading. It also hadn’t occurred to me that “the Strand” was a dance, like the Twist or the Tango, though I’d never heard of it. Maybe just made up by Ferry and intended to be more metaphysical or given “danceable solution to teenage revolution” even something of a satire.
I continued to be so comfortable with Steve, like he was some long lost older brother I never knew I had, and we talked intensely for a couple more 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 and idealism, acknowledging that someone had to be so oriented or how would the world ever overcome inertia and move forward. In my long talks with him, I felt again my own emerging sense of mission and activism, like Bublil back in Chur several weeks ago.
The next morning, Saturday, with plans to have lunch with Giselle and family, I rummaged for my journal to make an update to my entry about going to the Louvre yesterday, but couldn’t find it! Then I had the awful realization that I must have left it in the tavern across the street last night. 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 locked us out, I had managed to leave my journal behind.
Of all the difficult moments I had experienced during my odyssey so far, this was by far 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 really nothing else that I possessed that was as precious to me. Sure if someone had stolen my money belt, which I only briefly took off my body when I took a shower (and I had taken few enough of those), that would be the end of my journey. I would have to go immediately to a U.S. embassy or an American Express office and arrange somehow to get money to get back to London and get an already paid for flight home. But I still would have the details of my journey, truncated as it might be, to keep it alive in my memory and better share with others. If the loss of the money belt was not some stupid error on my part, I could still come home somewhat triumphant.
But to lose my journal would just about kill me, and at the thought of its likely loss my head started to ache like it would when I got a fever. I felt panicky, and it was not lost on me that this was just like how my mom panicked when she misplaced something important, like when she couldn’t find our passports the morning we were leaving for our summer in England. Behavior on my mom’s part that my brother and I derided, mostly in private with each other, but also to her directly teasing her dismissively that it was the “ten second rule”, because she would usually find the critical missing thing about ten seconds after she started panicking. And boy would that panic look foolish at that point, and hopefully she would FINALLY learn her lesson this time.
But now here I was panicking just like my mom. I made one more desperate search through my pack to see if I would be so lucky as to find my journal in ten seconds, but it was definitely nowhere in my possession. I was completely stricken and humbled. I would bow to any deity who could somehow runite me with the precious recorded bit of myself.
I knew instinctively that I woulI be in this ghastly purgatory with even physical symptoms until I somehow could recover the thing. So I quickly stumbled out of bed, told Steve what had happened, put on my clothes and headed back over to the tavern across the street. It was a cloudy and cold early morning, and the tavern wasn’t open yet, with no sign of life inside from what little could be seen or heard through the small windows in front, and no hours were posted anywhere. I could feel a new sense of dread growing in the pit of my stomach that my precious journal was gone. How could I have been so fucking careless to just carry it around like that when I went out?
It would have made more sense to go back to the hostel and go about my business and check from time to time for the tavern to open, but I just sat there on the bench, unable to will myself to do anything else. I waited for what seemed like an hour but there was still no signs of life.
It finally occurred to me to try walking around to the alley in back, and when I did, I saw a North African guy in a dirty white apron hauling boxes of just delivered produce into the back door of what I figured might be the tavern. I ran towards him shouting and waving and he put down his box and looked at me quizzically. I asked him if he spoke English, but he shook his head and said, “No Anglaise”, but at least he continued to stand there and look at me.
“I think I left my journal here last night”, I said, pantomiming opening up a book and then writing in it.
“Journal”, he repeated, in his North African French accent.
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 really looking or had just blown me off. My devastation increased with every long minute 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, my light jacket, a pair of gloves, 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 would be more effective.
I walked back to the hostel in a daze, clutching the thing, totally chastened, thanking God even though I didn’t believe in him. I had to face the fact that the way I carried my journal 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 leave it behind risked someone taking it, plus having to wait until evening to add an update, some important insights might be lost! There was no immediate good solution, but I was so glad anyway and I literally clutched the thing to my chest.
Back at the hostel I told Steve my great news, and he chuckled, with a hint of derision, having witnessed from his adjacent bunk my earlier panic. Still supplicating myself to the deities including my mom’s parental presence in my mind, I realized what it felt like to be judged thus, like I had done so often to her. Suddenly on the defensive, I tried to convey the gravity of my journal by asking Steve if he kept one.
“Nah”, he scoffed, “What’s done is done, no good reason I can see to obsess over it. The challenge in life is to make the right decisions in the present and move on into the future.”
“But doesn’t remembering the past help you navigate that future, you know, not make the same mistakes?”
“Maybe”, he conceded, but then added, “Not my thing”. And then conciliatory, “I’m glad you found your journal, since it is obviously so important to you. Maybe I’ll rate a chapter or two when you write your book someday of your travels!”
Olive branch received, I was ready to drop the whole thing, not “obsess” over it as he had said.
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 again had more than my share. I recounted to them, through Giselle’s translation, all my adventures since they dropped me off at the hostel Wednesday evening, from Sacre Coeur, meeting Steve, the Louvre, to the losing and finding of my journal.
Giselle was translating and gesticulating for her husband and daughter as I went. They seemed engaged by her rendition of my tale, either laughing, nodding, or responding with their thoughts, in French of course, some only semi translatable by Giselle. At Laurence’s urging, in French of course, Giselle did her best with her limited English to fill me in on Sacre Coeur’s infamous history from the point of view of people on the political left, like they were. She said they would never go there, and would not take visitors there even if asked.
And Giselle laughed approvingly when I told her my thoughts on Rubens versus David. Once she had translated my comments, Laurence broke out laughing, grasping me briefly on my shoulder as she sat next to me to register her approval. Just a quick moment really, but for those brief seconds she was touching me I bathed in the intoxicating intimacy of it, imagining her hands on both my shoulders as she gently pressed her lips against mine.
Giselle finally asked if the hostel had worked out, and was distressed to hear my impressions of the place, once she figured out how to translate “homeless”. She apologized profusely but noted that at least I had found a travel companion there and we together had found now a much better place to stay.
Maybe medicating the residual stress from my near journal loss, I ate and drank too much and felt kind of sick, having been a little queasy after eating the night before. 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 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 Paul it seemed so natural, so I was happy to go with it, and realized that it felt somehow more civilized than just a handshake. 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 ten seconds of any sort of intimacy! But ten seconds I remembered fondly and replayed in my mind for weeks and even months after.
Once I got back to the hostel, my stomach was feeling better. Steve was in the common room involved in an animated conversation with a British guy and a young woman from South Africa. They were discussing the subtle difference between marijuana and hashish, like people of our parents’ generation might discuss scotch versus bourbon. Late to the conversation, my contribution was that hash was usually smoked with tobacco, either rolled in a joint or in the bole of a pipe, while marijuana was not. Having never really smoked regular tobacco cigarettes I thought it was significant, tobacco adding its own component of the buzz, but no one else in the conversation agreed with me.
The group at the table decided that we’d all head out to the Moulin Rouge district to walk around. When we got there the streets were already crowded with tourists and locals and all the strip joints were lit up, garish and inviting. Though we did not have the money to venture inside any, maybe just as well, I actually enjoyed the glittery, slightly sexually sleazy but 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, wearing thick coats in the cold of the evening. Their hair was all dolled up and they were wearing lots of makeup. As they saw me looking at them, despite the cold, they opened their coats to show off that they were incongruously wearing tank tops that showed off their braless breasts. They were all standing in kind of staged relaxed poses against the sides of buildings. One of them whistled at me and waved. I was starting to wave back when I realized that 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. A quick scene played in my mind’s imagination of the two of us naked and touching each other. 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 was looking at me, turned my head and moved on out of their visual range.
I remembered from reading Portnoy’s Complaint, and seeing several R-rated movies, that this was how some young men had their first sexual experience. 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 handful of young women during the past two years that might have been candidates to share that experience with. That included several young women in my theater group during my senior year of high school who had been attracted to me, plus a couple more in my college theater productions last year. 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 charms – historical, architectural, artistic, culinary and otherwise.