A Letter From France

dsc_0816aArticle and photos by Pete Shaw

September 24, 2016

Dear Mom,

Early morning at a very large table in a quite nice house in a really neat artists’ commune in the quaint Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, far enough from the madding crowd of Sacre Couer.  The tourists run wild there, which is hardly a bad thing, but it is also not my thing. In a few hours Jessica and I, who have been in France for two weeks, leave for home. I never sleep well before air travel, although I am happy say I am much better than the days when you used to plow me with drinks at the airport just so I could work myself up to conjugating the verb fly.

It has been a great trip–certainly much better than when we were here two years ago. Then, my body fell apart, rife with rheumatoid arthritis Only after returning to the US did I find out I had been running–or rather, hobbling–around with it for quite a few years. Only a few months prior had it gotten out of hand, and while I still had a great time–hell, it’s France, and I was with Jessica–after nearly collapsing in the SeaTac airport, I knew I had to figure out what was wrong. Taking a page from Denny, I decided once we found out the problem, we would find as good a remedy as possible, and then I would make sure we got back here so Jessica could enjoy it. She understandably–particularly because she thought I was dying–did not have a good time two years ago. The past two years have been challenging, but I have been lucky enough to have good doctors and a cadre of great Friends who have provided support for me, and more importantly, Jessica.

A sundial by Salvador Dali.

A sundial by Salvador Dali.

Paris is a beautiful city. You would have loved it. Perhaps you remember the advice given to people going to New York City: don’t look up (because you might make eye contact with a panhandler). That is terrible guidance if only for its striking lack of humanity and compassion. But in Paris, it would also be stupid. There is so much going on above you, on the buildings. Many of those structures, at least the more famous art nouveau ones with their seductive curves and gorgeous inlaid carvings and sculptures, are the product of the Haussmann Plan which created Paris’ wide boulevards. At the time of their creation, the impetus was not completely aesthetic. With various rebellions throughout the city, the powers that be saw it as imperative that armies be able to repress those uprisings, and Paris’ narrow streets made that difficult. But yesterday’s whiffs of grapeshot have given way to a city whose streets themselves are works of art.

I should add here that this beauty, as well as the many wonderful aspects of French society–particularly its social welfare programs–did not come from nowhere. They are the product and legacy of people fighting for those gains, and as well, of a brutal imperialism that killed, raped, and pillaged many people and their lands, providing much of the wealth that has funded those programs. In short, for all of its good, it has been built on the backs of many, the majority of whom have not reaped its benefits. There is, however, always tomorrow. I apply that optimism to both my health and the health of humans, and I think I owe a lot of that lemonade making to you.

One day Jessica and I took a train to Vernon, a small town in Normandy, and from there we rode bikes to Giverny, where Claude Monet lived. You can tour his gardens which he designed and planted. While they are not my taste–I prefer things more sauvage–they are impressive. And seeing his water lily pond in real life only a couple of hours before seeing them on giant canvasses in the Orangerie Museum made for an interesting experience. I still am not sure which was more real. I am quite sure that it does not matter. I know you would have enjoyed seeing the paintings as I remember you telling me how much you liked the photos of them in the Monet calendar I got you one Christmas. You kept it, and I took it back here with me when we moved dad out of the house.

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Monet’s water lily garden at Giverny.

Our time in Paris has bookended a six day jaunt down south. First we went to Arles, a venerable city in Provence that had some prominence around the time of Julius Caesar. The dry climate has helped preserve a Roman coliseum, and in the countryside are other remains that look like they could be used with just a few upgrades. You and I will not look so good in 2,000 years. Hell, I don’t look so good now.

Arles is a small place. Its historic district takes about 15 minutes to walk across, although you would be foolish to be satisfied with just that. Like most medieval cities, it has narrow, winding streets that lead to hidden alcoves, through darkened passageways, and past a host of jutting buildings, creating angles that are a geometry junkie’s dream. At 3 AM you can wander those streets, alone in your thoughts, at peace, or perhaps convening with echoes of the past. You may even find a few fellow travelers, hoping the city will reveal some of its secrets, if not their own.

Fifty years ago in London, Ray Davies wrote one of the most beautiful works of art I have ever experienced, beginning with some lines about the Thames, “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night?” The Rhone is perhaps as old and dirty, as it slowly winds past this ancient citadel at its own particular pace. It is not terribly picturesque to my eyes, but then again, at one point I stood on the spot where Vincent Van Gogh painted his Starry Night. Much like “Waterloo Sunset,” it strikes me as a gorgeous ode to loneliness–to those things of beauty that we hold deepest within to help us make it through another day, no matter how much of a dirty, old trick it might seem. Sadly, all too soon, Van Gogh one day found there was nothing and nobody he could hold on to.

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Garlic at the Arles Saturday market.

The countryside of Provence is gorgeous, and from both Arles and Marseilles we explored it. Unlike in Paris, English is not widely spoken down south, and in the small villages outside of the major towns, it is often not well-understood. Fair enough, and that is why I took a couple of French classes at Portland Community College with a wonderful teacher who actually coaxed me into talking in class. Fear not, I am still poor with languages. After all these years I still cannot read music worth a damn, and perhaps you remember that I took seven years of Spanish to finish on a third year level. Nonetheless, I ruthlessly worked out my minimal skills on people, always to their appreciation and nearly as often to their amusement.

The people of France get a bad rap in the US for being snobbish, and I am sure some of them are. But with one exception, every person with whom I have interacted in our visits has been kind, and when needed, helpful. When we first got into Paris via train from the airport, a man named Emile–born in Normandy, but now living in Paris–took it upon himself to guide us to the proper train. Which I suppose he did. But between all the wending and winding through stations, plus three rides on the metro just so we could avoid dragging our luggage up the large number of stairs at Gare du Nord, getting to our rented apartment in the Bastille took about an hour instead of the ten minutes it should have taken. I am glad we took the long way if only because Emile was so happy to help and talk with us.

The stereotype, I suspect, largely emanates from US citizens coming over here like cowboys, expecting people to speak English and act like France is the United States. It is at best counterproductive, and it is rude. I am still hardly a paragon of manners, but one reason for taking those French classes was so I could show I cared to respect these people’s culture, not to mention that I would have a terribly difficult time enjoying France, particularly Provence, if I could not communicate effectively with people. At its best, language allows us to receive others’ beauty and transmit our own unto others. So why not get as good at it as I can?

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Marseilles.

One day while visiting a small town named Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie, we stopped to grab some lunch at a small restaurant with a gorgeous terrace. As usual, I let Jessica choose my meal as she enjoys food more than I do, and this allows her more things to sample and enjoy. It seemed my quietude upset the woman who owned the place. Perhaps it would have been good manners to utter some substantive French, but honestly, I was enchanted with my surroundings, and as is still my wont, I became lost in my thoughts. But after the meal I told her, in no doubt very poor French–but nonetheless, French–that I had only begun learning this pretty language and that her cooking was wonderful. She beamed at me, grinning ear to ear. Every time we talked with people, I made a point to note how beautiful I found the country, its people, and their language. Sometimes the truth does not hurt.

Marseilles, where we went after Arles, is a grittier version of Paris, feeling in many ways like New York City. We only had three days there, and we spent two of them exploring the Vaucluse department north of it. But the place where we stayed was across from the Les Calanques National Park. Calanques are these steep walled inlets along the coast that on calm, sunny days produce those azure waters so often seen in photos from the region. We, however, checked them out on a very windy day, one which saw me often losing my balance because of the gales’ strength. I really was scared I would be tossed into the battering waves.

Scattered along the rocky coast, as well as on some islands not far from shore, are many crosses, wrought iron and ancient. On days like the one we had, you can completely understand why you would thank every deity in the book–and perhaps invent a few more–for surviving your journey. Treachery lies everywhere, on land, in water, and in air. Living through the experience would be miraculous.

The one day we got into the city itself made me regret not having more time there. It is alive, bustling with activity. There is a wealth of artists, and you get the feeling that you could strike sparks anywhere, and someone would come around to spread the flame. It feels like anything is possible.

We returned a few days ago to Paris for the final leg of our journey. Since then it has been more walking, about five miles a day minimum. We probably cover in one hour all of what I was able to do two years ago. Every moment is one of wonder and beauty, but I suppose that is the story of life with Jessica. After all this time, my cup still runneth over.

The people who own this beautiful place, Zahia and Marc, are, as the fellas say, some of god’s original good people. We were lucky enough to break bread with them last night, getting to share in some stories of their lives. It was a wonderful experience. Zahia is from Morocco, and she expressed some worry about rising Islamophobia in France, helped along by Marine LePen, who leads a political party with fascist overtones that is gaining traction. It was a dark reminder of home.

Just as dark were the names we all seemed to know: Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, whom police murdered during the time we’ve been here. They were just, sadly, the most prominent names. During our trip, police have murdered at least 38 people according to the website Killed by Police. Twelve of those victims were Black, one Indian, and one Latino. This year, police have murdered 848 people in the US. Why, at this point after all these police murders–including the ones over the past few years that now cannot be denied thanks to the wide availability of cell phone cameras and other similarly common technologies–do people not, or perhaps more accurately choose to not understand that Black Lives Matter, and only when on an institutional level that this is affirmed–as well as for the lives all people who daily bear the oppression of institutional bigotry–will all lives matter?

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Standing on the edge of Calanques des Goudes.

But the Friendship we shared in the simple acts of eating and conversing–sharing food and life itself–recalled the good that also lay here and there, as well as the capacity for forging bonds of love, compassion, and humanity regardless of distance.

Earlier in the day we met up for lunch with a Friend who was a student in our French class, and her mom. Zonna is studying fashion in Paris, and I assure you that despite the seeming absurdity of us sharing a table–I still dress completely for the seemingly paradoxical reasons of keeping warm and keeping the sun off my Irish inherited skin, not caring much about the look of my garb–it really happened. Zonna’s mother, Tina, is spending a month with her in France before Zonna starts class. It was not as bad as I imagined it would be, but as ever in crowds even as small as two, I was nervous.

I still spend a lot of time worrying I am going to be a complete embarrassment when in social situations, and it did not help that I had a lot of green tea that morning. At one point I began jabbering on like an 87 year old man who had just discovered meth, my gums flapping at an incredibly high velocity. Jessica, used to this behavior that in a Parisan restaurant must have seemed highly aberrant, got her usual kick out of it, and this seemed to put Zonna and Tina at ease (although I should not discount the possibility that their brains had become paralyzed with a very bad fear, and their looks of serenity were actually their default positions as their bodies seized up in horror, allocating energy only to the most rudimentary functions necessary for survival, much as a lungfish will when it ensconces itself in its home waters’ muddy bottom in preparation for the dry season). Which is good because they are nice people who don’t deserve to be subjected to the likes of me without someone like Jessica around whose calm in the storm for nearly 20 years now is doubtlessly assuring.

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Vaugines.

At one point I suggested Zonna start a line of clothing based on my sartorial tastes. Because she is kind, she did not reply that she was studying fashion, not zoology. After lunch was said and done, nobody seemed any worse for wear, and I suspect Tina and Zonna came away largely unscarred, and hopefully, highly amused. At the least, as we walked with them to the metro, and at no point did they seem ready to find a garbage compactor and stuff themselves–or me–into it. Such things are still major victories in my book. Still, while waiting for the train, I kept one eye on them, and made sure I was far from the tracks.

Between those wonderful meals, Jessica and I hit the Salvador Dali Museum. Now there was a true prince of the Freak Kingdom, and did he ever proudly wave his flag. And he was a damn good artist to boot. In one way, the museum was a shrine to weirdness in one of its highest and loudest forms. It was comforting, and even Jessica admitted she had rarely seen me so at ease, as if I was a completely in touch with my environment.

Well mom, I need to start getting ready for our flight. I am sorry I have not written in awhile, but over the past few years I have become…comfortable…is that the word? Kind of. Yeah. So kind of comfortable with your absence. I still miss you, but I have gotten to a point where while I still think of you many times every day, those memories have seen their jagged edges worn with time to smooth contours, gentle instead of harsh. Consequently, I rarely feel the need to write down the feelings those memories engender to let them out to the light of day. Much like the butterflies in our backyard back home, I admire their beauty, and if they land on me, I am content with them to stay until they or I feel compelled to move along.

Despite all the hurt, pain, and cruelty, this can be such a beautiful world. Behind it and stronger than all is Love, which if given the chance, can cut through any darkness. Thank you for showing me that in so many ways.

For good or ill, I don’t much believe in an afterlife. We live and we die, and in between, if we are lucky, we get to share in lives well-lived. In our decay, life springs anew. If there is something beyond here, then I will see you.

But with all my heart, I hope not too soon.

I Love you.

Love,

Peter

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