Lenore had complained about Charles de Gaulle airport long before we got there. I hadn’t had any bad experiences there myself, but she’d had a nightmare time there the year she went to France as an exchange student. I felt such a sense of elation, like a homecoming, as our plane approached Paris, that the airport itself was of no consequence to me.
After all those years of having panic attacks at the very thought of visiting Poland, I’d been surprised to find myself missing the place the moment I left. My feelings for Paris, on the other hand, had been with me as long as I could remember.
I had spent almost all my study time on Polish and decided to wing it, language-wise, when I got to France. I’d noticed that studying another language somehow seemed to turn on my French circuits and dredge up vocabulary I hadn’t used in years, so I felt that at least a few words would be there when I needed them. I also had Lenore to rely on, with her greater conversational skills gained from classes as a French minor and her months of living in France as a high school student. It was a relief for both of us to find ourselves in a country where we could read all the signs and have a pretty good idea of what was going on at any moment.
Things did turn out to be a little rocky at the airport, though. It was a major hike to get from the gate where we landed (our luggage, magically, still accompanying us) to the area where we would catch the train into the city. And once we got there, we discovered that the ticket kiosks wouldn’t take our American credit cards. We had no euros as yet, still only Czech money and dollars, and there was no money-changing booth anywhere near. There was a ticket booth manned by actual humans, however, and although it required a major wait in a line that wasn’t long at all but moved at a glacial pace, plus further struggles with our credit card, we eventually acquired tickets. If you go into this situation, do find yourself some euros in the airport, whatever the price, before you head for the train station area.
Once we arrived at the Gare du Nord, I figured I’d be oriented and comfortable in getting around the city. Pfff. This huge train station, while it’s not too bad to get around, could still benefit from better signage and directions for those of us who are only passing through and don’t know the place well. We still had something of a challenge finding a money-changing booth, and the fee was outrageous. But when we finally managed to get to the Métro, I knew exactly where we were and where we were going. We popped up into the light just half a block from our hotel.
I’d stayed at Hotel Chopin twice before, in 2002 and 2006, and Lenore had been there the first time too, with my mother and me. It had always felt like home, and I couldn’t even think of staying anywhere else, especially since my husband and I had had a bad experience at a noisy place a few blocks away during part of the 2006 trip. The hotel is an 1820s structure at the end of a section of Passage Jouffroy, off Boulevard Montmartre. The passage is full of quirky shops, including one with the most horrifying campy jewelry I’d ever seen.
That’s just down the street from Chopin’s first Parisian apartment on Boulevard Poissonière. If you’re not obsessed with him enough to recognize that already, the building is marked with a sign to let you know, which you can just barely see in the picture below. Chopin had a top-floor walkup, but the place must have been a fun spot to live anyway. The ground floor held an ice cream shop in his time, and now there’s a toy store.
Hotel Chopin has a wonderful staff, good breakfasts, comfortable though small rooms, and nearly everything you could want except a good WiFi connection. Much as in Krakow, we were able to keep in touch to some extent by sticking to certain parts of the room, where we could often, but not always, pick up a signal from the Best Western nearby. The hotel has a nook with its own computer for guests to use, but French keyboards are different from American ones (whereas the guest computer in Warsaw had been like ours, strangely enough), and it was slow going to type on it. Cafés with WiFi in the area either were impossible to make a connection in, very expensive, or both, so they weren’t a good option. We were too proud to try the McDonald’s down the street; that is, I might have gone for it, but to Lenore it was unconscionable. One effect the Internet difficulties had was that I was sadly unable to catch the finals of the Chopin competition.
Here is Lenore writing under the gables of our room on the top floor. We got to feeling awfully sympathetic toward people like the young Chopin who had to deal with all those stairs! I have to admit we took the small, rickety lift a lot of the time.
There were a fair number of food choices in the neighborhood, though again, they tended to be relatively expensive. Other areas, such as Boulevard Clichy, were grungier but offered more in the way of quick street foods one could grab, sandwiches, pizza, crèpes. (On my first visit in 2002, I’d noticed that a sandwich was un panini. In 2006 and 2010, it was un sandwich.) We didn’t mind frequenting decent restaurants, but the large portion sizes were an issue. What do Europeans have against taking home leftovers? We were expected to each order a full meal, even an entire pizza apiece. When we very politely asked if we could please split something that was obviously going to be far too large to have two, we were treated like criminals. If restaurants want to do business this way, they could easily serve smaller portions. I don’t object so much to the waste of money as the waste of food, which I find positively painful to witness. I suppose what we should have done was bring along a bit of plastic wrap or foil and squirrel away leftovers that could be carried. I would rather be gauche than be wasteful.
My first order of business was to head back to the Gare du Nord and buy a ticket for the Eurostar, the train that goes through the Chunnel. Now, we had been on our share of trains, and I thought I knew what I was doing, but the Eurostar is completely different. You don’t just buy a ticket and head for the train at the last minute. Most significantly for me at that moment, the price changes dramatically depending on how far ahead you buy your ticket. I hadn’t seen anything about that on the Eurostar website, and I was in for a real shock. Those of you who are reading this for serious travel information, please take note! I don’t even want to tell you what I had to pay to get a ticket for the next day.
Here’s what Gare du Nord looks like from the Eurostar ticketing area:
So why was I paying through the nose for a Eurostar ticket? It had to do with the reason I had planned to be in Paris at this precise time: I was going to see two friends that I knew from the Piano World website but had never met in person. We had hoped that either we could all go to Warsaw together or that we could at least rendezvous in Paris, but none of that had worked out. Instead, Joe was coming from America to meet up with Mary-Rose at her home in southern England, and from there the two of them were going on to Majorca (another Chopin-related spot), where they had snagged a rare deal to stay for a week. The only time I had a chance of seeing both of them was the day Joe’s plane arrived in London, which was to be October 14.
I had tremendously looked forward to a trip to the Louvre, and that was my next stop. I thought a Wednesday afternoon in the off-season might have lighter crowds. So much for that. The place was packed, and there was hardly any place to sit and rest. This got to be a huge problem for me because, perhaps due to all the hill and stair-climbing of the days in Prague, I developed the worst low back and hip pain of my entire life. I was almost unable to walk, and one thing you have to do at the Louvre is walk. A lot. I was planning on visiting only a couple of limited areas that I wanted to concentrate on this time (I had been through the museum twice before, a quick run in 2002 and an extensive tour in 2006). However, to get to those areas required hiking through what felt like kilometers of hallways. Some of the elevators were out of order, too, so it was even more walking than usual.
So many stairs….
Finally approaching the 19th-century French paintings, I turned a corner and was surprised to find myself face to face with the famous Delacroix portrait of Chopin, an image I’d lived with for so many years. The two friends were fittingly placed on the same wall.
In addition to the Chopin portrait, there were Ingres’ sketches for the chapel dedicated to the crown prince Ferdinand d’Orléans after his untimely death, and paintings by Paul Delaroche. This collection of connections to three of Delfina Potocka’s significant others, all so close together, was enough to knock me off balance a little. I developed more respect for Delaroche’s work, too, after seeing some formidable, very alive portraits he’d done.
I arrived at the Eurostar station in the morning without incident. The procedures for boarding were at least as bad as at an airport, nothing remotely like the other train experiences we’d had. In addition to airport-like baggage and personal security, we had to go through multiple stops with authority figures asking questions, and fill in multiple forms. On the line that asked how long I was planning to stay in England, I wrote “7 hours.” This caused the British woman in the customs booth to ask what I’d be doing. “I’m having lunch with friends,” I told her. She raised her eyebrows. “That’s an expensive lunch!” she exclaimed. I nodded sadly.
The train had phenomenally uncomfortable and non-adjustable seats, and the advertised WiFi didn’t work for me, but other than that the trip through northern France was pleasant. The Chunnel itself was just a dark tunnel, nothing to remark upon. I didn’t feel oppressed or unnerved by it.
My destination was the station at Ebbsfleet, the closest station to Mary-Rose’s home. I wasn’t expecting to be there very long, but accidents that closed tunnels and roads kept Mary-Rose and her partner Bob from getting to London on time to pick up Joe and thence from getting to Ebbsfleet to fetch me. This was only the beginning of our mishaps that day.
Now, if you are stuck at Gare du Nord for a couple of hours, you have the possibility of shopping and having something decent to eat. The Ebbsfleet station apparently aspires to be a major hub like that, but as of October 2010, it was very much a work in progress. The amenities included exactly one small coffee shop, and nothing else whatsoever. I had my netbook with me because I wanted to share my pictures from Poland, so in theory I had entertainment, but there again the purported free WiFi wasn’t working for me. And the place was absolutely frigid. The only comfort was hearing announcements in English– to the extent that one could make them out– you know how those PA systems tend to be.
At last, after about an hour and a half, I spotted a woman with a huge Airedale on a leash in the distance. It was unmistakably Mary-Rose! I don’t know when I was last so glad to see anybody.
It was all worth it to finally meet Mary-Rose (center below) and Joe (right) as something more than marks on my computer screen.
Mary-Rose had the idea of taking us to the second-oldest pub in England, the 13th-century George and Dragon in Speldhurst, Kent. We were running late for our reservations, but they were able to accommodate us.
The interior was dark and cozy, and we appreciated the fire in the huge hearth.
There was an intriguing patio in the back with an odd, picturesque olive tree.
The highway gods must have been terribly displeased with us that day. The traffic delays we’d started with didn’t get any better. And after a full day of plane travel and virtually no sleep, then the lurching about and starting and stopping constantly on the narrow, twisting roads, Joe felt seriously ill and couldn’t take any more. I was getting a bit woozy myself. The impressively-sized dog, Butz, was astonishingly patient, but he’d had more than enough of lying draped over Mary-Rose’s lap hour after hour. We ended up stopping at a beach, where the long-suffering Butz had a chance to run. The equally long-suffering Bob is at the other end of the leash, and didn’t make it into this picture. This took up more time, but getting out of the car was a great relief.
The sky is cloudy in the beach picture, but through most of our journey the weather was lovely, and I did get to see a great deal of the rolling green countryside and a number of little towns. After we started off again in the car, I offered to do some energy work for Joe, which was easy since I was sitting right behind her and could put my hands on her shoulders. It seemed to help, and she was able to nap for a while.
It soon became clear that there was no chance whatsoever of my making the last train of the day at Ebbsfleet. We changed plans, and Mary-Rose and I attempted to catch a train to London at another station that would get me to the Eurostar there for the last departure. After a great deal of desperate running around the station getting our tickets and finding out where to go, somehow we managed to miss the next train to London. We were carefully reading the signs on both the platform and the trains, but they were misleading, and we still missed out– again, the garbled PA announcements didn’t help. That was a crucial error. Meanwhile, Joe, Bob and Butz were having no better luck getting home in the car; yet another accident-related traffic snarl kept them on the road hours longer than expected. It was completely unbelievable.
We arrived at the station in London a good 10 or 15 minutes before the last Eurostar back to Paris left, and with any other kind of train, that would have been good enough, but in this case it didn’t matter. There wasn’t enough time to get through security. Although no one would have been terribly inconvenienced by waiting a few minutes, being that it was the last train of the day, there was no flexibility whatsoever. “You should have gotten here earlier,” the agent at the desk commented unhelpfully. A French woman who was trying to make it home went into absolute hysteria. I didn’t react that way, but I was deeply enraged, more for her sake than for my own, and I don’t think I’ve gotten over it even yet. The only bright spot was that the ticket counter was still going to be open for a few moments. Mary-Rose and I dashed over there, and I reserved a seat on the very early first train of the next day. Do not let this happen to you!
I could have really enjoyed the impressive St. Pancras Station under other circumstances. The architecture is ornate, and there are all sorts of stores and amenities. What mattered most to us right then was a Marks and Spencer’s where we could get truly delicious and fresh prepared meals to take along, and even more important, a kiosk where we could book a hotel nearby.
The hotel had very little to recommend it except for being better than spending the night freezing on the floor of the station, where they might not have let me stay anyway. It was gigantic, and getting to our room required another long hike through hall after hall. Then we found that the room they’d given us hadn’t been cleaned, and was strewn with items like wet towels. We called the front desk and were told someone would come to fix up the room, but no one arrived. We hiked all the way back to the desk, then a similar distance to another room, which was in much better shape.
All that left us with only four hours available for sleep. We were too tired, and it was too late, to chat. Knowing I’d have to be up at 4 a.m. and that I couldn’t entirely trust the alarm on my phone, I didn’t dare take a sleeping pill, and there is no way I can sleep naturally under such conditions, so I got literally not a second of sleep. Fortunately Mary-Rose slept well, if not long enough, because she was going to have a demanding day ahead of her. While lying there awake, I did learn a skill that I’m sure will be important in the future. After a day in a vehicle of any kind, from car to boat, I’ve always felt as if I were still moving, rocking, swaying, vibrating, whatever was going on in the conveyance, and I’d never been able to get rid of that feeling before. That night it was the worst ever, and I could not begin to relax even a little with the room seeming to spin and tilt around me. Desperate to make it stop, I concentrated all my attention in my first and second chakras, grounding myself with all my might. It worked! The motion stopped completely and I was at least able to lie there in relative comfort.
The 4 a.m. wake-up time was necessary in order to get Mary-Rose to her plane, which was going to leave from London but not nearby, and to get me back to St. Pancras first. Otherwise I could probably have taken a later train, which would have allowed me to sleep a bit with a fragment of Ambien, and we could both have awakened at a decent hour. We managed to find a cab in the dark chill, and both of us got to where we needed to be.
Interestingly, despite my severe back pain the day before and the fact that I usually do poorly with long hours of sitting, especially under cramped conditions, I had hardly any pain at all during the ordeal in England.
I arrived back at Hotel Chopin without incident, but in zombie-like condition. The day went mostly to waste. Our maid typically came in pretty early, so I thought I’d wait to try to sleep until after she left, but of course she’d put herself on a different schedule for the day, and a couple of hours went by before I gave up waiting for her and settled down for a nap. Lenore went exploring on her own, going to the Belleville neighborhood and having one of the better days of her trip.
That evening, Lenore and I set out again. We wandered around the Latin Quarter, looking for a little Greek restaurant that Bob and I had enjoyed, which was run by an energetic older lady who reminded us of his mother and made us feel like family. We didn’t find it until we’d already eaten at another Greek place, which had pigeons strolling through its colorful, open interior. I tried to get pictures of the incongruous birds, but they eluded me. Looking out the nearby door, I saw posters for some of the still-ubiquitous Chopin Year concerts. After dinner we discovered the best gelato we’d ever experienced, at an Italian place called Amorino.
Our first attempt to visit Notre Dame was disappointing because the cathedral closed so early that we couldn’t go inside; we should have visited there before we ate. (Sacré Coeur, in contrast, is open most of the night.) However, our evening stroll around the grounds turned out to be among the loveliest and most relaxing moments of our voyage. What a relief after the rigors of the day and night before.
The park behind the cathedral includes the most fun outdoor toy ever. You sit on this disk, which has a nonslip rubbery surface, and shift your weight or crawl around to make it spin. We didn’t want to stop playing with it, but when an actual child came along we got out of her way.
A strange sight awaited us on the nearby bridge, dozens of locks attached to the wire mesh of the railing. There was nothing that explained the significance of this display. I added a little piece of ribbon that I happened to have in my purse, wanting to be part of this enigmatic cultural expression.
We walked along the Seine after that, and got rained on fairly heavily. That was the only substantial rain of the trip, and naturally, though we’d been carrying two umbrellas all over Europe, we managed to find ourselves without them. It was nice anyway.
This evening I went to Square d’Orléans, where Chopin lived through much of the 1840s, close to the hour that my friend Rinaldi [my historical-fiction vampire character] might have been able to make an appearance. Either they close it in the evenings, or they now keep it closed to the public all the time. I had to be content with looking through the grillwork of the doors on Rue Taitbout, into the arch with the carved ceiling, which glowed with yellow-toned light.
It was a disappointment to have bothered to make the fairly long trip through a couple of Métro changes, then to be reduced to standing there staring like an idiot while the people who actually live there went in and out. Well, I suppose peons like me never did get to hang out there– but my husband and I had walked around inside the square during our 2006 trip, and I had expected to be able to do that again.
The neighborhood doesn’t look at all impressive outside the Square, and one would never know what a lovely little enclave is tucked away there.
The earlier part of the day had been far more successful. We slept too late to get the hotel breakfast—not surprising for me, I guess, after the completely sleepless night before. We started off with pastry and coffee at Le Valentin, just down the passage, then took off for the Espace Dali in Montmartre. Way up there. Just getting out of the Métro at Abbesses involves climbing 90 steps (or waiting for the crowded elevator). It said so on a warning sign. Even the kids were huffing and puffing. They put some nice murals on the wall so that as you wind your way up the stairway you have something inspiring to look at.
The good part about the 90 steps is that once you’ve done that you are well up the Butte Montmartre already. (Lenore said, “Ah, the Métro, the happy womb of the city.”) When we emerged, we found ourselves birthed into a flea market with fascinating vintage clothes and some of the worst plastic jewelry imaginable. Lenore was overjoyed because she’d been dying to find a thrift shop. We didn’t buy anything, though I would have bought that perfect, top-quality long blazer if it hadn’t been a size too small.
The Dali museum, reached by a good deal more climbing, was a real treat. I hadn’t known Dali’s work at all well; now I have a great deal of respect for him, despite the incomprehensible qualities of so much of his work.
I didn’t enjoy or understand every piece by any means, but I was able to connect with a lot of it. I was entranced by the little 3D viewers of some of his famous works in the gift shop, and bought one for me and three to give away. They take you into little worlds that are delightful—or disturbing— to visit.
Lenore was on the lookout for the works of another artist, a sort of guerilla urban artist who calls himself Invader and who applies tile images of Space Invaders (remember them?) to buildings on the sly. Get it? He invades the spaces! We found a number of his pieces, and it was fun to try to spot them. Here’s one in Montmartre not far from the Dali museum.
You can find more of Invader’s work and that of some copycats at http://www.coolstuffinparis.com/space-invader-pixel-art-mosaics-1.php
Having struggled up all that way, we were just about at the level of Sacré Coeur, and didn’t have to do the daunting climb up the front steps that I remembered all too well from 2006.
By that time it was drizzling and chilly, and we were glad to get into the shelter of the basilica. The whole place was clogged with people, but most were quiet and respectful while they were inside. Outside was another story. Some young black guys were doing tricks with soccer balls, and a young white guy was playing guitar and singing.
One way to get down from this high point is to take a picturesque staircase, lined with decorative lamps. Years before I had found an evocative photo of this staircase on a rainy night, and I’d put it up on the wall of my bedroom to help keep my hopes alive that someday I would be able to visit Paris. When I finally got there in 2002, I couldn’t find the spot. Lenore figured it out later during her visit as an exchange student, and now the staircase is like an old friend to us.
On the way out of the church property in a different direction, going down stairs and ramps through a lush, vertical sort of park, I was accosted by some nice-looking teenagers who showed me a clipboard that said they represented a group that helped deaf-mutes like themselves. They asked for a donation. I took out a little money, and they insisted that the minimum was 5 euros. Rather than accepting my smaller amount, they tried to shake me down, physically surrounding me and grabbing onto my arms. I really could not believe this was happening. When I told them off, they gestured that they were deaf. I told them, adding equally clear gestures, that they understood my body language perfectly well and that they should not treat anyone that way. I finally had to actually strike one girl’s arm to get her off of me. I found this all extremely disturbing. Lenore couldn’t understand why I was upset—she had simply told them no to begin with and they had left her alone. Honestly, I find this behavior completely incomprehensible; if they acted pleasant and polite, people would most likely be happy to give them money. They would have had a little bit from me, but as it was, they got nothing except someone screaming at them. In what way was that worthwhile to them?
Despite its deeply historic site, its mind-boggling decorativeness, and the intentions of its builders to renew the spiritual life of the city, Sacré Coeur holds no spiritual power for me. Judging by conversations I’ve had with others who have visited there, this is not an uncommon feeling. There is nothing like the joy and peace I feel at Notre Dame. But it sure is pretty.
10/17, the day of, as the folks at the Chopin competition put it, “the Death”:
Cold and damp today, with unremitting cloud cover. We took the rather long walk to another of my favorite places in the world, the Museé de la Vie Romantique, which I’d visited twice before but absolutely had to see again. It used to be the home of the painter Ary Scheffer, and rather like Square d’Orléans, it is reached by turning off an unimpressive street and going down a passageway, this one green with ivy. In Scheffer’s (and Chopin’s) time, it was out in the country, outside Paris itself, and it still has a bucolic feel.
First we viewed a collection of 19th-century paintings in a building I hadn’t entered before, which had no connection to historical figures I cared about but were interesting in themselves. Then we went into the main museum, which was Scheffer’s house and is dedicated to some of the leading lights of French Romanticism.
George Sand has more of a presence there than anyone else, with Chopin very much included as well. Quite a few small personal items of theirs can be seen, along with plaster casts of his hand and her doll-like arm, which seem to be reaching toward each other in a disconcerting sort of way. The museum also has a number of drawings and paintings by Mme Sand and her son, and a recreation of her salon at Nohant, with portraits of her ancestors and family members. For some reason I feel extraordinarily comfortable in this place, as if among dear friends, and Lenore nearly had to drag me away.
We’d been looking forward to lunch in Scheffer’s garden, where I’d had the most wonderful tea and quiche on a previous visit. Neither one was as impressive this time, but it was still a lovely setting.
Later I Métro’d over to Place Vendôme, the scene of The Death and still an upscale piece of real estate, having decided against a visit to the Père Lachaise cemetery this time (perhaps because it was so expected).
A group of early 20th-century cars was being unloaded in the middle of the place for some sort of show (perhaps related to a car show going on in another part of the city). Strangely, they were dirty, looking like they’d been driven there rather than brought in an enclosed truck. If you have enough resolution, perhaps you can see the ironic “FRED” sign on the awning at the back of the picture. I don’t know what sort of business it marked, but other shops in the square sold things like expensive jewelry.
I’d been there before, and had found no impressions or emotions of any kind. This time I looked up at the windows of #12, wondering again which room had been his bedroom at the end. One of the windows drew me strongly. Perhaps I was correct. No way to know. A plaque marks the apartment itself, though.
An interesting moment on the trip back: there is a shop that sells ballet slippers and tights, regular dance accoutrements, but will also make custom ballet flats in a choice of 250 leathers and fabrics. They had a variety hanging in the window, bright as Easter eggs. There was a sign explaining that Brigitte Bardot had once asked if they could make her some shoes as comfortable as her ballet slippers, and apparently they’ve been doing it ever since. I would love to have this done for me, even at $200 or more, if they would be truly comfortable! In theory I should be able to make them myself, but I doubt I’d attain that level of quality.
Looking online for parks, we found a huge one, the Bois de Vincennes. Approaching the park, we passed a series of odd windows like this one, part of a sound wall paralleling the highway.
The park is huge and surrounds a lake—too big by far to call it a pond. It was idyllic, with a classical-world style gazebo on an island, people fishing, broad lawns, a flock of geese, and at least a couple of swans.
Do you know what it didn’t have, despite being this huge place where people spend hours on end? Restrooms! Not even the simplest facility. I can’t figure out what they’re thinking. It makes no sense at all. Many spots where people congregate in Paris are reasonably supplied. We walked a lot further than we planned, making that issue all the worse, because the shape of the park was more complicated than we realized and the path we were on didn’t come out where we thought it would. For a while we found ourselves trapped on the island. Eventually we made our way out into civilization again, by which time I was in considerable distress.
A restaurant a few blocks away provided the needed equipment and a pleasant lunch. Bizarrely, the view outside the front windows contained palm trees! In northern Europe! Definitely not yuccas or any other species from temperate climes– real live palm trees. I don’t understand how that could be. It looked like we had suddenly teleported to Nice.
Near the park is a government building that has something to do with immigration. A protest was going on in front of the building, asking for better treatment for immigrant workers. Like other protests we’d seen in this week of “industrial actions” (read strikes), it was entirely peaceful. Just a bunch of young black men, mostly, holding banners and standing around eating sandwiches. We’d been hearing of riots going on, but as far as we could tell, if there was anything like that at all it must have been limited, and it certainly had no effect on us.
At last we were able to get to Notre Dame when it was open to the public. I think it is my absolute favorite place on earth. As my piano teacher put it, it’s “where God lives.” From the plaza in front of the cathedral, it looks like the whole mass of stone is going to take off into the heavens at any moment. When one is inside, the mind and heart are swept upward into other realms. If they’d let me, I’d live there myself.
The votive candles give one an opportunity to powerfully set intentions and good wishes for others. The only trouble is that there’s nothing to use to light the candles, only the candles themselves, and trying to ignite one tealight with another is a tricky business that leads to some inevitably falling to the floor beneath these dramatic circular stands.
Who doesn’t love gargoyles?
And this chandelier is my favorite image from the whole trip. It became my 2010 Christmas card.
We found it absolutely necessary to go back to the Italian gelato shop in the Latin Quarter, Amorino, for another fix. I’ve had amazing gelato in my time, but this was beyond all others. It was also helpful because I had developed a sore throat, and it was becoming clear that I had caught a cold, just as I’d done on my last trip to Europe.
I finally found a piano store in the neighborhood. Actually, I’d seen it two days earlier, but it was Sunday then and the place was closed. Of course I was nervous to go in and ask to play, especially since I knew I’d have trouble communicating, and I was by no means sure that I would remember any of the repertoire I’d memorized with the trip in mind. I managed to say that I hadn’t played in three weeks and really wanted to, and the saleswoman told me that she could rent me a studio for the hour if I liked. That didn’t seem quite like what I wanted, so I asked if I could just try one of the instruments in the shop. They were all closed and I couldn’t tell which brands were which. I picked the closest grand, which turned out to be a Schimmel. It wasn’t much; the keys felt about two feet tall, and the touch was very resistant. But it was so good to engage with it, nevertheless! I played the 17/4 mazurka, fairly credibly, and did remember most of it. I wasn’t lost. If I’d taken a little time with it, I would have soon have had the whole thing back under my fingers. That made me feel better in itself, and the physical pleasure of striking even such inadequate keys was profound. I know with certainty that this is something I need.
With my nose continuing to run, I stopped at a pharmacy and accomplished the supreme linguistic feat of explaining that I had a cold and was both stuffed up and dripping, which got me a bottle of essential oil and camphor nasal spray. It was hard to say if it was very helpful. I was nervous of flying the next day, that’s for sure.
There was more to deal with than the physical illness, though. Lenore and I both found that as the time to go home approached, we felt increasingly depressed and anxious. This was true even though I was desperately missing my husband and so looking forward to seeing him again. It had been worst about three days before we left. She would be returning to difficulties and uncertainties in her living situation, and I, while I had no major upheavals to confront, had been feeling a bit burned out in my practice. By the time we actually left, we had managed to adjust our attitudes to concentrate more on gratitude and less on grief.
No more sardine experiences on the Métro; we planned to take the bus to the airport. You know, I had seen so many young guys on the trains that looked a lot like Fryderyk. It was hard not to stare at them, or at least not to be too obvious about it. His nose is common in Paris. And I didn’t see a single face like his in Poland, even though I was in his home town. I can only conclude that he looked like his French dad. Sorry, Poland.
The “Roissybus” takes off from a spot near the Opéra. It isn’t easy to see unless you know what you’re looking for. We thought we had gotten ourselves there in plenty of time, but we could have used more. A long line of people was already waiting, and many more joined us as we waited nervously, none too sure that the bus would actually show up. (As I said, we were already unreasonably anxious!) I don’t think everyone who was waiting managed to fit on the bus, but we did get on, and we got to the airport in good time.
The outbound experience of the CDG airport was more like what Lenore remembered, layers of redundant and seemingly idiotic security, though we weren’t trapped in a facility-less cul de sac for hours as she had been. By that time I was calm and willing to do what they told me. Lenore groused under her breath.
Flying with stuffiness wasn’t too bad in itself, it turned out, but it seemed that the transportation gods had not yet gotten over their wrath. Our first flight was all nicely loaded and ready to go when we got word from the tower that we would be delayed for nearly an hour. The transatlantic flight went smoothly, but then there were major issues at the Dulles airport in Washington, DC. We had a long layover to begin with, and then it was announced that our flight to Albuquerque would be delayed due to mechanical problems. After a while it became clear that the plane couldn’t be fixed that evening, and there was no choice but to wait for the last expected plane to come in, fuel it, and get us on that one. It worked out, but we were beyond tired and a bit freaked out by the time we finally boarded.
Our three weeks in moist climates had included only one day of rain, but it was coming down hard in Albuquerque, and the wet was to continue for a few uncharacteristic days more. The storm was heavy enough to give us some difficulty getting down through the clouds, but we landed safely– and completely unprepared to reenter our real lives. I had allowed for a few more days off before I would have to go back to the office, and I needed every moment of that time. I know people who have returned from places as far away as India completely fine and immediately functional, but between the time zone changes and the lack of sleep on the planes, I arrive in a state of utter uselessness and need a great deal of rest.
I have noticed that one is never the same after a major voyage like this. When one embarks, it’s impossible to know in what ways oneself and one’s world will be completely different when one returns. It’s a leap of faith.