top of page
  • Writer's pictureChris Morkides

The Paris Diaries - Days 1-6

DAY ONE

I’m sitting on the balcony of my Paris apartment, looking up at the Eiffel Tower, and I see girders. The same Eiffel Tower that filled me with wonder as I spotted it from a bridge headed into Paris 23 years ago is now a bunch of girders stuck together to form an overly hyped structure with a girdered finger pointed to the sky.


When did this happen? When did arguably the most romantic, most iconic structure in the world turn into a bunch of girders? I could blame it on Donald Trump. Why not? I could blame it on climate change or Russia or a whole bunch of other things. But, for now, I’m blaming it on girders which, to be honest, are what the Eiffel Tower is made of.


We flew into Paris from Philly yesterday. A long flight made longer for me because I slipped on my pavement walking to the Uber waiting to take us to the airport -- did they even have Ubers when I first came to Paris 23 years ago? – and wrenched my knee. The back seat of this particular Uber had no leg room and my knee felt worse by the time we reached the airport. The plane didn’t have leg room, either, and a six-hour flight felt like 60.


And, no, these aren’t just the ramblings of a crotchety old man with a bad knee. It’s the girders. It’s the lack of leg room. Don’t heap the blame on me for complaining about the “most beautiful” city in the world. A Parisian, no doubt, dubbed it “the most beautiful city in the world” initially, an American smitten with a sexy Parisian woman picked up on it and the rest is revisionist history.


“So, the omelet was good?” the waiter who served me breakfast asked.


It was good, but did he have to phrase it as a leading question? Couldn’t he have allowed for the possibility that it wasn’t good, a little runny maybe?


And then the same waiter charged me 25 euros when I thought the bill was 18.


“It is seven euros for sitting inside,” the waiter explained, although I didn’t see any sitting-inside fee signs and thought the waiter made it up to take advantage of a sore-kneed American.


And what happened to all of the grass on the Champs de Mars? The park sprawling around the Eiffel Tower used to be covered with lush grass on which lovers would lie, caress, drink wine and gaze at the achingly blue sky. Now? There is as much dirt as there is grass and those couples spend more time taking selfies than caressing.


“So, the dinner was good?” Another waiter. Another meal. The duck was good. But what is it with Parisians and leading questions?


Twenty-three years is a long time, I know. I was 42 when I first came to Paris. I’m retired and on Medicare now. I was single when I first came to Paris. I’m married and have a daughter now.


Things change. But why did Paris have to change on me?


“Could it be you and not Paris?” Another leading question. And I’m the only person sitting on this balcony.


----


DAY TWO

I would marry Cyrille Aimee.

Let me rephrase that: I would not marry Cyrille Aimee. I changed my mind for a few reasons. First, my lovely, talented and sainted wife, Alisa, might read this and object to me marrying the French jazz singer. Second, Cyrille and I might share a love of music, but I doubt that we share anything else, including a job, because I am retired and Cyrille, when last I checked, was touring Europe. And third: look at her and look at me. Yes, Alisa, I had to do voluminous research for this piece, and the research resulted in me discovering that Aimee not only is easy on the ears. She is easy on the eyes.

Cyrille, in the form of my Cyrille Aimee Pandora Station, accompanied me on my walk through the streets of Paris today. We were joined by Blossom Dearie, whose version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” has supplanted Ella Fitgerald’s version of the same song as my top jazz standard of all time. Diana Krall came along. And Nina Simone. And a few other artists whose names I can’t remember, but whose upbeat versions of jazz standards accentuated the Parisian landscape.

I’m over the jet lag that caused me on my first day to question my love for Paris. It truly is a moveable feast, as my fellow author – I can say that because he’s not alive to punch me in the mouth for saying that – Ernest Hemingway once said. So many flower shops. So much music. And the patisseries. Oh, the patisseries. Is there a more perfect food than the croissant? The pan raisin, maybe?

Everything here caters to the senses, which makes me think: why doesn’t everything where I live – Wilmington, Delaware – cater to the senses? The same could be said of Philadelphia. And New York. And pretty much all of the U.S. cities that cater to big business (skyscrapers), doctors (is there another reason that the Big Mac is our national food?) and taxidermists (not really; I just like saying ‘taxidermists’).

At some point yesterday, the power in my I-phone ran out and I couldn’t listen to Cyrille or Blossom anymore. But it didn’t matter because I still had the upbeat, understated jazz that is life in Paris.

The 50-something woman posing like a model for a husband taking a picture on the Champ de Mars. The people sipping espressos at tables mid-day when, if this were the U.S., they would be sitting behind their desks at work wishing they were sipping espressos.

I returned to my apartment and Alisa, who is more beautiful today than she was when we met 22 years ago. And I’m not just saying this because there is a chance Alisa will read this. We’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary next week and I’ve learned new and wonderful -- sometimes not-so-wonderful -- things about her each year, each month.

Let me rephrase again. No, because it’s true.


----


DAY THREE

Les Deux Magots is known as the café of choice for Hemingway and Picasso and James Joyce and Camus and a whole bunch of philosophers, writers and artists who wouldn’t have created such great art and writing and philosophy if they didn’t have so much time to kill between cups of coffee.


The waiters still are slow. As for the writers, you are stuck with me. Sorry about that.


I didn’t go to LDM yesterday to feel a kinship with Hemingway and Picasso or even Camus, although my wife tells me I philosophize way too much. I went for another reason: the hot chocolate. And not just any hot chocolate. I went for the hot chocolate l’ancienne.


Let me see if I can describe the hot chocolate l’ancienne. Image that they’ve melted down all of the dark chocolate bars from your local Trader Joe’s. Now, imagine that they’ve syphoned all of that melted chocolate into your bathtub. Now, imagine that you want to take a bath in it, except you realize that it would be silly to take a hot chocolate bath, so you drink it instead.


That’s a hot chocolate l’ancienne, minus the scummy stuff that accumulates around your bathtub drain.


The most Zen-like eating experience I ever had took place a few years back when I ate an omelet and drank hot chocolate l’ancienne at LDM. I remember sitting there, savoring each morsel of omelet, savoring each sip of hot chocolate. Finishing one omelet and one small pot of hot chocolate literally took over an hour, much to my delight and the chagrin of the host waiting for a table to open on the terrace so he could seat another customer.


“But Angelina’s hot chocolate is better,” my wife, Alisa, says.


“Angelina’s is better,” my daughter, Kina, agrees after having hot chocolate at Angelina’s with Alisa on the same day I went to LDM.


A couple of things. Angelina’s gives you a dollop of whipped cream with their hot chocolate. LDM doesn’t. Angelina clearly isn’t confident in her chocolate and feels the need to throw in a few bells and whistles to attract the tourists.


Second, have you ever heard of Camus drinking hot chocolate at Angelina’s and then commenting to the person sitting next to him, “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is,” and then that person fleeing from Angelina’s. Of course not. He was making people flee at LDM.


Third, Angelina’s is a babe in the hot chocolate woods. It opened in 1903, 30 years after LDM moved to its current location in the St. Germain district of Paris. Angelina’s had time to learn from LDM’s hot chocolate mistakes and improve on the product.


Unfortunately, there was no room to improve. So, you get whipped cream.


----


DAY FOUR

The road to acceptance, Paris has taught me this trip, is paved with cobblestones.

I decided to take a short walk to the Marais district yesterday, a stone’s throw – notice I didn’t say ‘cobblestone,’ opting not to go for cheap laughs – from our charming apartment in the 4th arrondissement.

The thing I like about short walks or, until yesterday, long walks in Paris is that they reveal all sorts of wonders you won’t learn about in a guidebook. All of the Top 10 Things to Do in Paris lists on the Internet invariably include the Louvre, and I’d rather be caught dead in the catacombs than go to a museum.

Anyway, yesterday’s trip revealed the wonders of apricots in pastry. I can’t say that I ever had an apricot pastry before yesterday, let alone two as good as the ones I had at a patisserie in the Marais.

Problem was – until I told myself it wasn’t a problem – that I ate the desert portion of my meal first. So, I took an even shorter walk to an Asian bistro a block away, had some kind of “bun,” which was more like a soup than a bun, and ended the eating portion of my day with a smile on my face.

My arthritic feet were bothering me a tad at that point, but not enough to prevent me from searching for the Place des Vosges, our favorite park in Paris.

I remember when Kina was about four, the first time we brought her to Paris, and I watched her play in the little tot lot in the Place des Vosges. I especially remember a French male toddler paying close attention to Kina, climbing the slide after she climbed the slide, going to the swings when Kina went to the swings.

“Watch out for these French men,” I told Kina when she returned to the blanket Alisa and I laid out 15 years ago. “They like American women.”

“What?” Kina responded, or something equally toddler-esque.

My arthritic feet were sorer when I found the Place dew Vosges yesterday which, much to my chagrin, was only half-Place des Vosges. The other half was being torn apart, no doubt, so they could lay new sod and plant new flowers to make a better Place des Vosges, although I don’t know how you can improve on perfection.

Time to go home, my feet were telling me. In the old days, I’d just head in a direction I suspected was closer to home and didn’t mind if I wandered off track because wandering off the cobblestoned track meant that I could experience more portions of Hemingway’s moveable feast. Now, with my feet making a little too much noise, I wanted to get home quickly. I punched directions into my I-phone and headed back to the apartment on what my trusty Google direction-finder said would only take 11 minutes.

I wish Kina, now 19, was with me because she’s the only one in the family who truly knows how to use this Google direction-finder. I looked at it about 10 minutes later to discover that I was 10 minutes further away from the apartment than I was in the beginning.

The heck with this direction finder. I decided to do what I did in the old days.

“Which way is the Seine?” I asked a man passing by. If I found the Seine, I knew, I could find my apartment.

“Let me check.” The man was English, so there was no language problem. But there was a spelling problem, and he couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t find the “Seun” on his phone. I hate pointing out spelling mistakes, but my aching feet told me to break my rule.

Fifteen minutes later, I plopped on the couch in my apartment and thought about what the Bataan Death March would have looked like if a couple of cafes had been erected along the way.

I also thought about how much I’ve aged since that day Kina was a toddler being stalked by a male French toddler at the Place des Vosges.

But that’s okay. I might not be able to walk the cobblestoned streets of Paris the way I used to, but there’s a metro, it seems, on just about every corner.


----


DAY FIVE

Sounds.


I’m pretty much stuck with writing about sounds today because my feet still are bothering me, although they’ve recovered enough from yesterday’s longer-than-needed journey to the Place des Vosges to allow me to cross the bridge down the street later to eat at this great brasserie.


For now, though, I’m stuck with the sounds I hear from my window that opens to our little street, the Rue Saint-Louis en I’lle.


There is a school down the block. I don’t know the name. I do know the look because I’ve walked past the school on my way to the boulangerie down the street. It’s old, just like most things in Paris. It may be a Catholic school, because there’s a Catholic church next to it.


What I do know, though, is that the kids are happy. I’m hearing the children laughing as I write this. And I heard children from another school laughing when I passed them on the way to the Place des Vosges yesterday. Now that I think of it, I’ve heard children laughing and playing often when I walk down Parisian streets.


Maybe I’m overromanticizing. Maybe I’ll tune out the laughing and tune in the cursing by the time we get to the end of our vacation. For now, all I hear is laughing.


“Why do you think that is?” I asked Alisa this morning.


“Because they’re happy,” Alisa says before going back to her decorating book to figure out why this funky apartment feels so right.


Fortunately, I’m hearing children laughing now and not Alisa discussing how this color in the rug accentuates that color in that painting which highlights that color on that pillow. Alisa and Kina are off to Versailles and I’m here listening to children laughing.


All French sounds aren’t good, though. I also hear police sirens in the distance. The whiny tone goes up, the whiny tone goes down, the tone is loud enough so that any car in the police car’s path will move to the side of the road.


But the decibel level isn’t as ear-splittingly loud as it is in the United States. I wouldn’t buy an album – if they make those anymore – of French siren sounds, but I’d take these sounds any day of the week over the sirens I hear at home in Wilmington, DE, a city that earned the dubious distinction in the not-so-distant past as the Murder Capital of the United States.


I also hear adults walking underneath my balcony. The female voices are sing-song. For all I know, they’re complaining about the same thing women in the United States complain about: their husbands. But they do it in a sing-song way, so it’s not so bad, especially for someone who doesn’t speak the language.


The men’s voices are serious. I mean, many of the great philosophers are French – Descartes, Sartre, Voltaire -- and I’m guessing the men passing by my window are influenced by the same things that had Sartre opining, “Hell is other people!” Even so, these serious men are being serious in the most beautiful language in the world.


Another sound: a church bell tolling.


Another sound: the alarm I set to force myself to avoid overthinking as I write this piece.


Which will be followed by a sound I wrote about earlier in this diary: my Cyrille Aimee Pandora station and, if Pandora is kind, Blossom Dearie singing, “Someone to Watch Over Me.”


----


DAY SIX

I don’t wear my Philadelphia Eagles windbreaker or my Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt overseas to meet other Americans. I wear the windbreaker because it is the only windbreaker I own, and a windbreaker is the lightest piece of clothing I know that actually keeps me warm. I wear the sweatshirt because it is the only sweatshirt I own with a hood and saves me the inconvenience of carrying an umbrella when it rains.


Bottom line, though: wearing Eagles gear has resulted in meeting Americans whenever I visit Paris.


Let me start with our last trip to Paris because the American I met just happened to grow up one block away from me in Philadelphia. What are the odds of that happening? I’m halfway around the world, waiting outside Café Constant and the person who asks me if I’m from Philadelphia happened to live a block from where I lived as a child? About as low, I’d say, of getting bad pastry in Paris.


This trip, though, has been the all-time American-meeting experience. I’ve met more Americans in the last week than I meet at home because I rarely leave my house.


The first meeting wasn’t a particularly auspicious American-meeting debut. I was waiting for my food at the Café Beaujolais and heard the man sitting to my left telling the couple to his left that he was from the Philadelphia area. I immediately started a conversation with him when he came up for air from the monologue he had been conducting.


“I heard you say you were from Philadelphia,” I said. “I’m from Philadelphia.”


“Yeah, I know,” he said. “You’re wearing an Eagles sweatshirt.”


And that was it. He didn’t say anything else, I wished harder that my salad and beef-with-red-wine stew arrived quickly, and I focused on the waiters flirting with every woman who walked by them on the street.


Unfortunately, that wasn’t it for long after the man who had been carrying on a monologue with the people next to him realized, after the couple left, that I was the only one left to monologue with.


“Yeah, I’m from the Philadelphia area,” he said. “I’m here on business, flying a plane. You know, I like it better when we have to fly further – we get paid by the time we spend in the air, not by the time we’re away – but that’s okay. I’ll get back to my wife and kids sooner.”


An opening. Something to steer the conversation away from him.


“Your wife. What does she do?”


“She’s a librarian. In the school district where our children go. You know, they asked me to give a talk at my daughter’s school, tell them what I do. I gave them a list of questions, you know, which I didn’t want the kids to ask. But they asked them anyway.”


I didn’t want to know but he told me anyway.


“The boys, they don’t care what their teachers tell them. One asked if I had ever killed anybody when I was in Afghanistan. I told him that some questions were best left unanswered.”


My question was answered, though. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, but the beef stew was living up to its award-winning status and I stayed a few bites longer.


The second American I met – at Les Deux Magots – hadn't killed anybody, as far as I know. And we had a dialogue.


The third meeting I had with an American had nothing to do with the Eagles windbreaker I was wearing at lunch. It had everything to do with the Penn State cap he was wearing.


“Wait up for me,” I told Alisa and Kina as were getting up to leave the restaurant. “I have to ask that guy if he went to Penn State.”


I did, he did, and we got into a fairly long discussion about Penn State football that concluded with the school cheer. “We are....” he said. “Penn State,” I responded.


Not creative, I know, but it beat the beef stew guy.


Comentários


bottom of page