Offer We Could Not Refuse
Last fall…shortly after I announced my retirement from The
Ohio State University Libraries…a co-worker and my immediate
supervise Mike Toth announced theirs’ as well. We all ended
our careers on New Year’s Eve. Sometime before that joyously
coincidental event, Mike told me he and his also soon to be retired
wife Phoebe would be renting a house in the South of France for
six weeks. This was a big enough surprise in itself. But immediately
after congratulating him, he asked if my wife Yvonne and I would
care to visit them in France, as guests.
I was somewhat beside myself, not
just for the gracious generosity of the offer, but because the
man had been my supervisor for more than a decade and a half.
We had rarely socialized. I didn’t even remember having
lunch with him. Yet the warmth of his invitation eased my mild
trepidation. Yvonne and I wondered aloud how we could pass up
such an opportunity. Within days I told Mike we were in and set
some dates shortly after.
At first we planned on flying into
Barcelona…a city we long to someday visit. But airfare was
steep and travel time close to an entire 24-hour day. So we settled
(if that’s what one does when speaking of the City of Lights)
on Paris. This is my favorite city in the world…at least
what I’ve seen of Planet Earth…and the fact that we
had been there 14 months earlier invoked an interesting feeling
of “going home”. Strange. I rarely display exuberance
concerning familiarity. But Paris is far from ordinary…even
at its’ most mundane. And riding the TGV high-speed train
to the South is a thrill in itself.
We really only made one mistake on this journey…and it came
at the very beginning. Our flight arrived in Paris at 5:30 a.m.
We got to our hotel (a delightful place we stayed at in 2006)
at 6:15. Fortunately the Hotel
Du Danube has a warm, friendly staff and they allowed us to
lock up our luggage, freeing us to meander the predawn streets
of Paris…where nothing…and I mean nothing…was
open for business…at least not until the coffee shop next
door invited us in at 7 or so.
In the mean time we got a detailed
view of early morning Paris, which is mostly sleepy, the exception
being the street cleaners. Every morning these respected workers
clean the streets both wide and narrow. And while The French do
not come close to littering like Americans, because they love
their dogs and take them everywhere (even into restaurants) the
daily cleaning is a blessing…if you catch my drift.
So Yvonne and I, once inside our
cozy hotel room, took a nap. This killed an entire afternoon.
Perhaps in my younger days I could have stayed awake 40 straight
hours, but not any more. Jetlag is a part of travel everyone deals
with differently. For most of us I believe arriving in late afternoon
or early evening, staying up as long as possible after a nice
dinner, and then retiring for the night is the best plan.
We did have a glorious seafood dinner
at a wonderful restaurant we learned about in a travelogue we
watched on the flight over. The place is called Fish La Boissonnerie
and I had one of the finest meals of my life…no doubt. One
reality did present itself that first evening. Despite having
free lodging in the South four evenings later on, the American
dollar isn’t worth what they are cleaning off the Paris
streets each morning. Yet I sensed no hostility concerning the
U.S. politics of our time, but ironically a subtle sort of pity
and relief knowing George W. Bush’s days are winding down.
The French…and Europe in general…are very much intrigued
by America’s election in a more than “It couldn’t
possibly get worse” kind of way.
The following day we strolled the
avenues of Paris with a new vigor and clear headedness. When on
foot I always try to savor the journey. I attained this wisdom
from learning streets are narrow, street signs change defying
logic, and maps are not always accurate. A I overheard a woman
telling her husband, “It’s this way. You need to go
left to go left to go right”. I’m certain by his chuckle
he knew “right” as a direction and not correctness.
Better to acknowledge this challenge and take in the vegetables,
seafood, sights and smells of each district.
We made our way to the Rodin
Museum a little north of the Saint Germain section where our
hotel is situated. Still on the Left Bank…and in the middle
of this urban coziness, the museum was actually Rodin’s
residence. This is a mansion with sprawling gardens and grounds
displaying much of his famous sculptures. Whether it’s “The
Thinker”, “Balzac”, “The Kiss” or
less familiar works, the experience is quite moving.
After spending several hours admiring
Rodin (this guys was prolific!!) we headed back through the winding
streets. The hustle and bustle of late afternoon is exciting.
Of course we were hungry from all that art. So we took to the
byways of Saint Germain and wandered into a place where we had
eaten before. The name escapes me…but the seafood on display
outside does not. One of the traditional “family dinners”
of Frances is a bucket of mussels and frites (French Fries). But
first I had to down half a dozen or so raw oysters. The oysters
here are to die for. Big, fat, and meaty covered in a wine vinaigrette,
these briny gems are a visceral experience.
Shortly after our buckets of steamed
mussels in bleu cheese arrived a young couple with small children,
a boy and a girl took the table next to us. Soon they were all
munching on mussels as well and it was fun watching the kids devour
them like popcorn. The little boy expressed dismay when he discovered
the lack of ketchup on their table. (For some reason I find it
amazing…the children all know FRENCH!!!!) I tapped the boy
on his shoulder and handed him a bottle of good old Heinz 57.
The smile on his face was a picture of universal joy.
After dinner we meandered down to Café
Laurent to listen to some jazz. Counting our last excursion
to Paris this was our third visit to this delightful hotel bar
featuring a wonderful jazz trio. (The website is in French. So
is everything about this place…be prepared to point if you
do not speak the language.) I love this little club and the music
is great! The smooth sounds of upright bass, drums, and grand
piano is the perfect way to cap off a night in the City of Lights.
And after a couple (yes…expensive) glasses of Bordeaux we
were ready to head back to our hotel, get a good night’s
sleep, and take the bullet train to see our friends in the morning.
Offer We Could Not Refuse” will continue with “Part
II – The South of France” in the next issue of Naked