Being back in France after almost three month in the tropics was a shocker. That 39 degree temperature swing actually hurt my face and I had to venture out wearing every layer of t-shirt, sweater and hoodie in my bag to search for an affordable coat. I figured I’d only need it for about a month. Six weeks’ tops. But still, in Paris one has to at least try to look reasonably fashionable so it was good old Zara to the rescue.
The winter in flip-flops had Lyla’s toes curled up inside her old smelly runners like a bird gripping it’s perch so we splurged on a nice pair of trendy boots for her. I offered to cut off the tips of her old shoes to make more toe room but that wasn’t a popular idea (eye roll) with the little fashionista. This kind of shopping would never be a big deal at home where we had exotic possessions like closets and regular paycheques. Now each purchase had to be carefully considered and strategized. Do we really need this? Will it fit in your bag? What can you remove from said bag to make room? Can’t you just wear extra socks? We hadn’t worn socks for months either. We were noticing and appreciating the differences.
It was like suddenly having a new wardrobe…goodbye shorts, bonjour long pants, hello sleeves! Even though they were tired from months of daily wear and had been squished to the bottom of our bags since the Fall the change was refreshing. And they almost fit! Okay, not really. Don’t think for a moment you’re going to go live in the tropics and lose weight. It’s too hot to move at all vigorously and the food (at least on our budget) is not of the highest quality. But man were we brown! My darling daughter had taken to calling me peanut butter (for the depth of my tan) and jelly (for the growing layer of squishy bagel around my middle). Not that it’s a huge deal. As a dear friend said “You’re working on your soul Tara, you can work on your body when you get home.” I love her.
Some of the pleasures and sensations we didn’t even know we missed were suddenly available and on decadent display. The French do have a special way with the window dressing. Fresh bread, drinkable tap water, palatable coffee, plentiful leafy green vegetables, decent red wine and milk…from an actual cow. Not that stuff in the boxes that can survive a nuclear winter. But Woah! Nelly can Paris be expensive! We met a friend for coffee at the famous Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and nearly choked as our daily food budget was slowly sipped in the form of two coffees, one hot chocolate and a couple of croissants. Again, perspective. Last week, families living in tin shacks, this week $12 cups of tea surrounded by the beautiful people in their fur coats. Wearing fur is still very much a ‘thing’ in Paris. Maybe there’s no PETA office there?
On the downside Paris was nursing a noticeable hangover from the horrible Charlie Hebdo massacre. We stayed in Le Marais which is the Jewish area of the city and were troubled to see soldiers armed with machine guns and bulletproof vests pacing outside many of the synagogues and Jewish schools. You couldn’t buy a falafel without being stared down by an imposing looking SWAT team member in combat boots or having to step around some kind of intimidating all terrain assault vehicle. An underlying current of tension, confusion and sadness remained.
The cold rainy weather and emotional climate were warmed by a new chapter in our trip. After six months as a threesome we were excited for the arrival of Cam’s Mom Lois. At 82 my Mother-in-law had never really ventured overseas except to Hawaii and it had been her lifelong dream to visit Florence. Seeing all of that Renaissance art in person would blow her artist mind. Lois would be travelling with us for three weeks in France and Italy and we couldn’t wait to show her around. The cool thing was, we were starting to feel like we actually knew our way around. We could walk the streets and use the Metro without having to whip out the map every few blocks. Plus we had rented a cool artist’s loft apartment and stocked up on wine, cheese, fruit and crusty bread which made the whole ‘we are living in Paris and hosting you like a Bohemian pro’ vibe pretty damned strong.
The apartment was a gallery in itself. The walls were filled with the owner’s huge canvases of nudes and the flat had three enormous windows overlooking the square. We sat transfixed watching Parisians dressed in black casting oily umbrellaed shadows make their way to and from work via the Metro Saint Paul. They huddled with friends and lovers in cafés smoking and chatting. They walked dogs and did their shopping. They lined up for fresh bread and pastries at the popular patisserie in the street below. The homeless sat together too, drinking tall cans of the cheapest beer they could find then pissing it all away in the alley beside our front door. Their ordinary lives were magical to us. We just felt charmed.
Even though she was still a little bruised and crooked after a bad fall curling (if you don’t know what curling is… it’s a crazy cold country sport where you slide big rocks down a huge sheet of ice and try to hit a target while sweeping the ice with a broom to make the rock go faster or curl…hence the name) Lois was not to be slowed or deterred in any way. If there was a site to see she was going to see it, absorb it and appreciate it. Jet lag be damned, off we went.
This time when we wandered through the famous galleries of the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay filled with the originals we’d seen so many times on calendars and cheap prints at IKEA or gazed up at the stunning intricate architecture of Notre Dame we did it with the overwhelming appreciation of a person who has waited a lifetime for the pleasure. I’ll never forget standing beside Lois when she viewed Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ for the first time. A visible jolt of electricity coursed through her body. Tears flooded her eyes. “It’s just so beautiful” she grinned ear to ear “how did he get those colours?” Then, she was simply speechless. Me too. Because lois was so awestruck and inspired, I was awestruck and inspired. Because seeing that painting in person made her feel emotional and overwhelmed, I felt emotional and overwhelmed. It was actually better than seeing it for myself for the first time because there was such an added sense of value and wonder. I was seeing it through the eyes of an artist who had patiently waited a lifetime for the honour. We stood together and simply looked at it. The master work of Van Gogh. Then she turned to me and said “It’s a dream come true.” Not exactly the snap a picture with your selfie stick and dash off moment we saw over and over. Including in front of the Mona Lisa. So many people thronging to see her only to turn their backs on her and take a picture of themselves. We are a weird species.
As we walked slowly along the cobble stones streets, often arm in arm fending off the fierce bone chilling winds of February, we had time to notice the small and the thoughtful. The charming and the poetic. The masterful and the innovative. We saw things we’d seen before with refreshed vision. Eyes that saw with the delayed gratification of waiting more that 80 years for the experience. Each taste, smell and view were tempered with a glaze of ‘I have never seen anything like this before and may never again’ thankfulness. Each charming shop window, each nibble of a pastry, every sip of coffee or wine, every carved parapet or rustic front door, each stoic monument and architectural triumph, every tree planted in a row hundreds of years ago, each stunning work of art was brighter and more beautiful because of it. I hope we can hang on to that appreciation of everything. That anticipation and that joy. That great Grandma gratitude. And I hope we don’t have to wait 82 years to come back.