In the valley of the shadow

For such a beautiful, picturesque and peIMG_3445aceful place, the Champagne region has seen its share of bloodshed. Germans pushed the French and allies back to the Marne and chased them through Belleau Wood during the first world war, the war to end all wars.

The countryside is littered with cemeteries and memorials of the dead. Farmhouses and chalets have been turned into museums.

I imagine soldiers 100 years ago running through vineyards and up the hills into the woods behind my uncle’s B&B, along the same paths that modern-day hikers trek before they emerge from the woods to rest at the gite my uncle has opened in his barn.

This is the same B&B where John S.D. Eisenhower stayed while he researched his book Yanks, about the creation and deployment of the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI, and how they stepped into repel the Germans, only for the Germans to invade the region again less than 20 years later. WWII’s Battle of the Bulge was fought just north of Reims in the Ardennes Forest.

The blood that soaked this land has dried up long ago and vineyards flourish. Michelin restaurants are sprinkled along country roads. Hotels, B&Bs and gites provide lodging for the weary traveler.

On this particular spring morning in May of 2016, our major crisis is a wonky Internet service provider.  The Wifi (pronounced “whiffy” by the French) is down and Bill is determined to figure out why.

Also, the phones are not working.

Acting on a hunch, we get into his Prius and head down to the workshop where the Dutch crew working on the railroad tracks are based.

We cross a narrow bridge over the Marne and drive around the north bank, driving past mounds of gravel and stacks of lumber until we find some guys in hardhats.

Turns out a tractor or harvester ran into a telephone pole and knocked the whiffy out of commission. But the Dutch had Internet and phone service so Bill is able to contact the phone company to have someone come out and repair the lines.

Such is life in rural France.

*************

Apparently, being the proprietor of a rustic B&B in the Champagne region leaves plenty of time on his hands. Bill is happy to take me to the French version of a Home Depot to look at gas-powered weed eaters. We stop at two other outdoor-landscape shops before giving up the hunt.

Next stop was the medieval church at Mezy-Moulin, a town named for all its windmills. I have to stop and admire Bill, wearing a stetson, black hoodie and black jeans, lurking around the cemetery like the Grim Reaper himself or a version of William S. Burroughs. The guy is in his late 70s and can carry off that beatnik look, pretty incredible!

A sign posted near the church has a map of Aisne region showing all the spots where Jean de La Fontaine was inspired to write his fables. It looked like a journey for a future date.

We headed into Chateau Thierry, where I saw the statue of Jean de La Fontaine. We parked on the street and Bill pointed out the Maison des Fables, the manor house where Fontaine was born and lived.

Bill also took me to the House of French-American Friendship, a testament to the long-lasting gratitude the people of Chateau Thierry have toward Americans. We are welcomed as royalty here and treated with privilege.

After we walked through the second-floor exhibit that focused mainly on Quentin Roosevelt and his contributions to the war effort, Bill said he had some banking to do. While he dealt with whatever business stuff he had to deal with, I wandered around the town center, sparse as it was.

A Maison de Ville stood at the center of a parking lot, surrounded by buildings on three sides. A supermarket, Art Deco movie theatre and the village flanked three sides, and the walls and stairs of the chateau rose behind the fourth rear side. The parking lot was sprinkled with some interesting vintage cars.

When Bill was done we walked up the stairs to the top of the chateau Bouillon. What remained of the fortress and castle were the ramparts and turrets overlooking the town below. From the top you could see the town, the Marne, the hills and valleys that gently spilled away. He pointed out one memorial in the distance, and another.

The fort ruins were used for various celebrations and festivals, like the annual Champagne tasting.  A sign on a wall said “Un suppot de Bacchus A Hait Sa Sante, son esprit et sa bourse.” It’s from a Jean de La Fontaine fable, and translates: “A henchman of Bacchus alters his health, his spirit and his purse.”

We clambered down and ate lunch at an Indian restaurant in town before driving off to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial in Belleau, where over 2,200 soldiers’ bodies are buried. The names of another 1,000 fallen soldiers whose bodies wer never found are inscribed on the chapel walls.

The memorial sits atop the front line battle trenches dug in defense of Belleau Wood. There’s a hole in the wall from an anti-tank gun.

It’s a beautiful and peaceful place laid out in a symmetrical T-shape. The landscaping was kept pristine. As it happened, gardeners were trimming the shrubs and lawn. Bill had to chat with one about his gas-powered weed whacker.

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Je vois des étoiles

Paris, you know I love you. But enough with these mansard roofs already. Time to head to Champagne.

Caught the 34 bus to to Gare de L’est/had time for a short beer first, thank god! I was thirsty from that hike up Montmartre. If I get out of here by  7 pm I could be in Reims by 8– 830 pm at latest. not too bad considering I still need an adapter and charge up my phone and laptop.

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It’s May 25. Heading out of Paris, we cross over this elevated train station decked out in steel girders and rivets looking very Victorian, like the dorsal ridge on Jules Vernes’ Nautilus. A big part of Paris is preserved in Belle Epoch amber, giving the city a soft golden glow at twilight. Everywhere I go there is the past colliding with the future, and the past is winning. Art Nouveau trumps Brutalism. LeCorbusier and Prouve beat I.M. Pei and Phillip Johnson. Guimard and Andre have it over Nouvel and Charpentier.  George Haussmann’s vision of Paris endures while Georges Pompidou’s fades.

The past’s version of the future is way more romantic than the present version of tomorrow. What will the future’s version of yesterday look like? La Defense or Le Marais?

Having just crossed the channel from London, comparisons seem inevitable. Paris is, in a word, fanciful. London, practical. Utile. Paris is your mother, no more like your eccentric aunt sipping champagne and running an art gallery or hat boutique, a fascinating but utterly useless place that exists by its own whims, without explanation or engine.

London is your father, or grandfather. Stern pinstriped banker or barrister, but with a foot fetish and a taste for Beefeater’s gin and a good paddling at the end of the day. French have affairs de couer. Brits engage in a bit of slap and tickle.

Paris is melancholy, London is diffident.

I doze off on the train, dream of three biscottis. When I awake, the man in the seat across the aisle is looking at me funny weird.

******

My uncle Bill — technically my father’s uncle because he’s the half-brother of my grandmother, my dad’s mom — greets me at the station in Reims. It’s a bit awkward since we’ve never met until now, but there is a familiarity. My DNA knows his DNA, they are attuned to the same frequency and vibrate. “Hello, kinfolk.”

Strange to meet a man I’ve heard so much about all my life. He is younger than my dad by a few years, the byproduct of great-grandfather Earl and his second wife Aubrey Lee, quite a lady from what I have heard about her. Never met her, either.

Bill is polite, quiet, a bit taciturn. Not surprised, really. It’s a Graham quality I’ve noticed before. He doesn’t exactly complain, but points out that the Chateau Thierry station is closer to the house than Reims and what with the trucker strike, you never know when the gas will run out at the station so you’ve got to use your fuel judiciously. Or was it wisely? Carefully. Ration your fuel carefully. Only drive when you absolutely must.

We stop in the little village of Dormans and eat at Sylvain Suty. Salade lardons topped with fried goat cheese and egg, homemade potato crisps and a medley of fresh veggies. All of it washed down with a lovely bottle of red wine.

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Bill has lived in France some 35 years. He was a commercial photographer who did a bit of photography for National Geographic doing a stint in the Peace Corps. He met Meredith, a former art history professor at Columbia who worked for the Met.

They met in Paris, while she was working for Columbia and he was running a compute store. They got their first apartment in Paris, and her father, Walter, said they should find some land in the country “where you could put your feet in the grass.”

*******

chambreI wake up the next morning in a bed in a room where Dwight Eisenhower’s son once slept. There are rough hewn beams overhead. A table in the room has an electric kettle, packets of tea and coffee, sugar. I have my own bathroom.

When we pulled up to the place the night before I was overwhelmed by the building’s rustic charm. Lilacs growing everywhere. Pear trees. The rough-hewn walls, the window shutters, the roof shingles. It’s exactly what I imagined an 18th century farmhouse would look like.

“We’ll die running this place,” Meredith says when I meet her at breakfast. She is frail, spritely, with fierce blue eyes in her white-pink face.

The other guests are a Dutch couple. The husband was here with a crew to work on the railroads. They were a boisterous couple, talking freely about the other people they met here.  The lawyers and designers from Connecticut who had a list of growers to meet and talk about selling their Champagne online. They couldn’t agree on where they’d been or what they tasted. Never did it. Too much involved.

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They had a large round table in the kitchen with the largest lazy Susan I’d ever seen loaded with jams and butter and homemade bread and croissants and muffins. Meredith asked if I wanted eggs so I said sure.

Afterwards I walked around the property, discovered the four a pain in the backyard where villagers of Reuilly-Sauvigny who didn’t have ovens of their own used to have their bread baked.

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I hiked up the hill to the A-Frame and the frog pond that overlooked the farmhouse, the barn, the terracotta roofs of the small village at the end of my uncle’s drive he dubbed Rue Des Vaches.

At the end of their drive was an obelisk erected in memory of the soldiers from the village — “Aux Enfants de Reuilly-Sauvigny qui mort pour la France” during both world wars.

A nearby fountain for nonpotable water was where the villagers used to do their laundry.

 

They called it the Champagne B&B because it was in the heart of Epernay, the heart of Champagne Country, on the Rue du Vigneaux.

I believed I had found my home. I believed I could live here forever. I am drinking stars.

A dump is just a jumping off point for my first day in Paris

eugene's airbnbThe first place I ever stayed in Paris was anything but magical. It was a dump.

It was advertised on AirBnB as a cozy little pied a terre in the luxurious 17th Arrondissement, not far from the metallically cubistic Palais de Congres. It had a picture of a balcony lined with pots bursting with vibrant begonias, mums and carnations in pink, orange and yellow.

I arrived at the apartment around dusk after a very long day of travel from London on one of those blue Megabuses. And I couldn’t get in through the front gate.

The bus trip was delayed by some mechanical problems with the Chunnel train. We arrived at the Gare D’Austerlitz about an hour and a half late. I notified my host about the mechanical delay and left a message that I would be arriving soon.

Then I had to figure out how to get from the south of Paris to the northwest. I went down into the metro with my backpack and got off at the Neuilly- Porte Maillot exit. I exited from underground to the spectacular sight of the Arc de Triomphe.

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Disoriented, I turned around until I could figure out which way I needed to walk. There was a park and an expressway and a huge metallic building complex that turned out to be the Palais de Congres. I walked back and forth in front of the Palais de Congres in a daze, trying to figure out which direction to head off.

Once I got my bearings, I made my way up the Boulevard Des Marechaux and then had to find the Rue Du Dobropol which went off at an angle from the boulevard where it changed names to Gouvion Saint Cyr. I phoned my host, Eugene, to let him know I had arrived.

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He came downstairs, showed me how to enter the code into the gate and the front door. We squeezed into the tiny elevator cab and rode five flights up. He was a short, skinny kid with blonde hair, barely 22 or 24. He said he was a graduate student and a translator.  Yet still the both of us barely fit into the tiny elevator.

He let me into the apartment, which really was no bigger than a storage room, and squeezed by. There was a skinny mattress on a wooden frame. The bed was unmade, the sheets tossed as if someone had just woken up from a nap. There were clothes draped over a chair and hanging from a hook on the wall by a tiny closet.eugene's apartment

There was no balcony. No flowers.

Next to the bed was a desk. At the foot of the bed was a shower stall and some very crusty looking towels. A kitchenette was off to the side with dishes, cups and a plastic bag on the counter. He gave me the keys, showed me the wifi code and left.

He had said one thing correct about the place. The WC was down the hall. I went to use it and then explored the floor. I walked past the elevator and saw a landing that seemed to be part of another apartment. There were my flowers.

I was hot and sweaty but no way was I going to use the towels or shower. I changed shirts and ventured out into the fading day.

I didn’t mind that the WC was down the hall from thIMG_3351e room, or that the room was tiny. I almost didn’t mind that his clothes were thrown all over the place and there was no place for me to put my own belongings. But what really ignited my fury were the sheets. They felt damp and gritty. The whole feel of the place made me wonder if he was living here when he wasn’t renting it out on AirBnB. He probably slept under a bridge or in a university library when the room was booked. No way he could possibly have a girlfriend, or even just a friend friend.

I shrugged the inconvenience off. I was bone tired. But I was hungry and thirsty and in Paris for the first time.

LATE NIGHT MEANDERING

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I headed down the street and grabbed a bite at Oresto, a hipsterish restaurant just down the street from my apartment. I asked for a bordeaux, but the waiter said they were all out. He served me a Cote du Rhone that tasted like vinegar. The guy at the next table was British. I asked him what he was drinking. Bordeaux, he said.

So I told the waiter I would have the same.

The meal was not fabulous, but the wine hit the spot. After I paid the bill, I walked in the general direction of the Arc de Triomphe and found a wine bar where I finally got a decent glass of wine.

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Walked past the James Joyce pub and got propositioned by a buxom African woman, who asked if I wanted to party with her. No thanks, I said.

I found myself staring at the Arc de Triomphe again. It was magnificent. I headed towards it down the Grand Armee. When I got to the Place Charles de Gaulle I walked around the circle until I found the Le Vin Couer, a lovely wine bar where disco was still alive and well. And the wine selection was great. I had a wine from the Languedoc-Rousillon region.

By the time I stepped outside it was dark. The Arc de Triomphe was all lit up, and in the distance a gold-glowing Tour Eiffel in all its Victorian erector set glory, its beacon like a laser beam shooting across the sky.

I was a moth, weaving my way down unfamiliar streets in a kind of zigzag pattern until I found the George V. I stopped in and had a glass of wine before heading over Pont Alma.

At some designated point in time, the entire structure of the Tour Eiffel strobed in brightly flashing white lights.

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I found myself walking down some crooked road behind the Musee du quai Branly, ultimately wandering through a gate and past some shrubs that opened onto a large park. And just like that I was under one of the vast metallic elephantine legs of the Tour Eiffel.

I was gobsmacked. It was so big. I stared up into its bowels and gaped at it in all its Victorian erector-set glory. Slack-jawed. My phone was dead. I couldn’t get a photo.

It was 1 a.m., Paris was still wide awake. People smoking, talking, drinking wine and coffee. I find a place that is still serving alcohol and have one last drink, a Pernod. They close in ten minutes.

At 1:45 a.m., flower vendors were pushing their last bunches of wilted flowers. Penguin waiters stacked chairs and pushed tables inside the vestibules of cafes. A group of men takes down old movie posters and replaces them with fresh ones.

I made my way back to my crappy room and still fully clothed, lay down the bed and fell asleep, exhausted.

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PART TWO

A PERFECT DAY

The next day, I asked Eugene for a few extra hours till checkout so I could leave my backpack behind to explore the city some more before leaving for Champagne, where my great uncle has a B&B converted from an old farmhouse. He said it was no problem.

So I trek around the city, leaving the backpack back in the room.

I grab a coffee and croissant at the corner tabac and meander. I visit the Eglise Saint Ferdinand-des-Ternes, built before the start of WWII. I pass the bust of Tristan Bernard at Place Tristan Bernard.

Men are trimming trees along the Champs Elysees. Movie posters advertise “Elle,” starring Isabelle Huppert avec Paul Verhoeven, “L’Origine de la Violence” avec Caesar Chouraqui, and for a fleeting moment I wonder what it would be like to see a French movie in France, without the subtitles.

More than once I hum the refrain from “Free Man in Paris.” It was one of those rare moments I truly did feel unfettered and alive.

I get hustled by a young woman claiming to be deaf-mute. She wants me to donate money for hearing aids. I give her a half euro and apologize. She goes off in a huff.

I get to the rond-point Marcel Dassault, admiring the Grand Palais and photograph the amazing gold sculptures that adorn the roof.

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I take photos of a wedding shoot on Pont Alexandre III. They are among the best photos I’ve ever taken, I do believe.

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I cross over the Seine to La Rive Gauche and walked past the Hotel Des Invalides, the Assemblee Nationale, and trekked over the Pont de la Concorde, the Egyptian Obelisk and giant Ferris wheel my beacon.

And so it went, my walking tour, past the Musee de L’Orangerie and into the Jardin de Tuilleries, where I painstakingly noted La Grande Musicienne by Henri Laurens, Standing Woman by Gaston LaChaise, L’Exchiquier Grand, by Germaine Richier and so many other sculptures live for the first time. To see these works of art with my own eyes seemed to breathe life into them.

“Je suis occupee la space. Je suis assis sur un chaise.”

The crows flock around L’Exchiquier. They seem called by this quadrant of the jardin, drawn to the electro-magnetic currents thrown off by these strange, neo-primitive objects that are at once extra-terrestrial yet grounded.

The crows cackle, “Reims,” as if to remind me of my ultimate destination this day. I get up and stretch and wander toward La Louvre where I come across the most beautiful Grand Bassin Rond. I realize I have just traveled, over a few dozen feet, several hundred years back in time from the futuristic 1950s to the High Renaissance 1660s.

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From there I walked along the quai, looking through the book and magazine seller stalls, feeling as though I were having an authentically Parisian experience. I strolled through a flower market on the Ile de la Cite, past an Art Nouveau Metropolitan sign for the Metro, and bam! There I was standing in front of Notre Dame. It was breathtaking. It was amazing. It was larger than life and I once again had no juice on my phone.

From there I marched around the Quartier Latin, past an epic seafood restaurant with all sorts of oysters, clams, cockles and fish on display on the sidewalk. Two young people were feasting on a mound of shellfish in front of them.

After walking around and examining the menus of every tourist trap, I sat down at a table at the Stop Cluny Brasserie right across from the ruins on the grounds of the Cluny Musee National de Moyen Age. Supposedly the oldest Roman building in Paris, goes back to the time of the gladiators.

Most of the people here were speaking French, so I took that as a good sign, a sign that locals frequented this place. Always avoid the places populated by large tables of Americans, Brits and Germans.

I ordered poulets avec champignons and a glass of vin rouge and thought about the myriad ways Paris differed from London. For one thing, the trees. For another, lots of people on the street hustling overpriced water, hearing aid donations, selfie sticks and miniatures of La Tour Eiffel.

I was too full for the creme brulee I ordered but ate it anyway.

It was almost 2 p.m. and I wondered how much longer I could extend my stay at Eugene’s dump. “Feel like he owes me a full 24 hours,” I wrote in my journal.

“It is strange but also liberating to be cut off from all communications with the outside world,” I wrote in my journal. “No cell phone. No computer. No Internet. No Wifi. No Email. No Twitter. And it’s my excuse for not responding to whoever may be trying to reach me.”

Of course, I had to reconnect to let my uncle know I was on my way and what train to meet at Reims.

An old woman just returned her meal and asked for a salade instead. The waiter is very affable and accommodating. He reminds me of Roberto Begnini. I guess I should go back to Eugene’s and collect my things but there is so much to see. After Montmartre.

Ray Charles is singing unbreak my heart somewhere. The creme brulee is only ok.

I decide to get my backpack and clear out of the dingy little apartment before seeing Montmartre. Place Pigalle was cool. Funky, untamed and a bit on the low end of the scale. On my way to Moulin Rouge I took a detour down the Rue Victor Masse– a street full of guitar stores with some serious, high-end and vintage axes in the windows.

One store clerk told me that there were about 30 shops like it in the area. Not because a lot of musicians live in this neighborhood. But one guy opened a store in 1970 and others followed.  Next thing you know, there was a whole little village of guitar stores here.

I walked up the streets of Butte Montmartre and sat on the steps of the Basilica, taking in the view below. Paris is just magnificent from any angle. A young man sat strumming his guitar and singing. The funicular bell was ringing. People sitting, talking and enjoying the late afternoon light. I want to live in Paris forever.

Paris, je t’aime

IMG_3366.JPGI’ve been to Paris four times in the last three years, and six times to France. And I will probably return to France this summer, if all goes well. Not saying this to boast or brag. It isn’t that expensive to hop on a flight from Orlando to Paris, and thanks to AirBnB, accommodations are cheap, too.

Except for sailing trips to the Bahamas, summer vacations in Canada and a honeymoon in Cancun, I hadn’t done much foreign travel until about 10 years ago, after I turned 50. And it would be another six years before I finally made it to Paris. And even that first time was an overnight stop on my way to my uncle’s place in the Champagne region.

But that first time. Ooh La La. That first time I saw the Arc de Triomphe lit up at night, and then saw the Tour Eiffel all aglow in the distance, its spotlight sending a search beam across the night sky, it took my breath away. It stunned me. It just didn’t seem real. I had to follow that beam of light down from the Place Charles De Gaulle, not paying attention to the narrow streets I trod as I weaved my way to the hallowed beacon sweeping the city.

I’d been conditioned at an early age to love all things French. My mother, whose grandfather was born in Nancy, France, of Austrian parents, who immigrated to the US when he was four, was fascinated with French culture. She taught us how to count to ten in French before I started grade school, taught us to sing “Frere Jacques” and would constantly play the Singing Nun, technically Belgian but who sang in French.

It was because of her that I took French lessons  throughout junior high, high school and college. I struggled with the verb tenses, tried to build my vocabulary, and translated a portion of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. I remembered the painted silk socks worn by Monsieur Iber, and the funny French rock’n’roll we listened to in class, and the blonde, blue-eyed student teacher from Alsace.

Like other would-be writers before us, my college girlfriend and I had talked of going to France together so we could live on cheap bread and wine and write incredible stories and poems.

A college professor who was from Paris nearly dissuaded me from ever wanting to go to France. When I told her a friend of mine gone to Paris to study, the professor inhaled her cigarette and in a withering, condescending voice said, “Oh, they still do that?” And then she blew a sarcastic cloud of cigarette smoke out of her mouth.

But there is something deeper to our fascination with Paris, something in our cultural bouillabaisse as Americans that pulls us to that gilded 19th century crowning achievement of the Belle Epoque standing over the Champs de Mars.

Maybe it’s the romanticism of the Belle Epoque itself, the heavy Haussmann architecture, the sails of the Moulin Rouge and its nightlife as depicted by Toulouse Lautrec, and storied artist pensioners in la Rive Gauche.

Or maybe it’s the idealization of the surrealist artists and American ex-patriots who populated Gertrude Stein’s salons in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”

We owe the French more than a debt of gratitude for helping us throw off the chains of British imperialism, hosting Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as they tried to raise money for their revolution.

We paid back by pushing the Germans out of France and liberating the Western Front. After that, many of our doughboys didn’t want to go back to the farm. The black soldiers didn’t want to return either after finding a friendly vibe in Paris. 

A similar thing happened after World War II, when Americans decided to stay behind rather than face the stultifying corporate world and suburbs that beckoned.

Our American love affair with Paris has endured two World Wars, the end of Colonialism and the withdrawal of the French from Vietnam but not before handing over that quagmire to us. We sent them Jerry Lewis, Levis and rock’n’roll. They sent us Brigitte Bardot, French New Wave Cinema, and Deconstructionism. We gave them jazz, they gave us Johnny Hallyday.

Movies like an American in Paris, Gigi, The Red Balloon al contrived to fuel our romantic fantasies of France. “Breathless,” the French sex bombs of the sixties, Claudine Longet, Jacques Brel, the Tour de France, Madeleines and Proust, Julia Child and Coq au Vin, Andre Previn and Champagne — these were the cobblestones in the street that connected France to our imaginations.

Those post-WWII movies and musicals probably had a lot to do with my mother’s view of Paris. She was an impressionable high school kid at the time, after all.

But my mother never had the chance to go to France. The closest she got was Montreal, which she loved. When she died of breast cancer at the age of 58, I swore I would go to Paris before I died.

But a career in journalism, several marriages and layoffs got in the way. Before I knew it, I was 58 and I had never been to Paris.

As fate would have it, I got laid off a few months shy of my 58th birthday. The newspaper I worked for had just been sold to its competitor and shuttered. I had a two-month severance check and time on my hands.

So I went to Paris.

And when I finally stood under the Tour Eiffel, my heart soared. I wept for my mother’s missed opportunity, I laughed at the absurdity of it all, the unreality of actually seeing that monument to Victorian engineering that had loomed large over my life.

Paris, je t’aime.