Thursday, July 25, 2019

Sacré Train Bleu

"Look up," he said. I did and found myself staring at the glass and iron beams of the Gare de Lyon's emblematic roof. "No, too much!" I swivelled back to eye level. " the left," I exaggerated my movement, robot-style. "No...back to the right..." Stop. Zoom. "And again, up!" Ah, there Christophe was! Standing on the balcony in front of the entrance to Le Train Bleu. Waving, waving his arm in hello.

I should have known that was were he would be.

It is a special place. Perhaps for many, I would imagine, but for the moment, while I write, I am claiming it as "ours."

You see, we met at Le Train Bleu for our first date. His choice, nonchalantly offered, in order to put the voice to the face after phone calls that had lasted from midnight until morning. I took the train from Avignon. Nothing less than a Monument Historique would doCall it a Parisian version of fore-shadowing something truly special? Save that he was...45 minutes late. It had taken all of my will - plus not one but two glasses of champagne - to believe in him enough to stay, alone, trying to look relaxed, as though I belonged there, until the traffic cleared and he arrived. When he finally did, pushing the table aside to slip next to me on the banquette in order to give me not a peck but a real kiss...well, that. Was that.

We have gone a few times since and I am used to kicking my luggage through the wooden revolving door. It's then that I truly know that I am back in Paris to be with my man. I am no longer intimidated by the chignon-tight hostesses who have perfected the "and you would be?" stare down the tip of their delicately pointed noses. But ah, it was Lucie that day at the welcome desk and she is lovely. She smiles. Or she did, until she frowned.

Apparently, there was no room at the inn. All the tables were full. Her side-kick, the redheaded bellhop (with chin-strap hat to boot) asked us to be patient, that soon a table would be available for "such regulars" as ourselves. I don't remember if Chris and I shot each other a side glance or not. Probably. I could tell that he was more on the side of leaving, we had been bantering with these two long to buy a bit more time I showed Lucie my favourite photo from our previous visits - that of an elegantly poised Nouméa (Christophe's tip-top trained pup) sitting in the midst of the empty dining room in-between services. Lucie's smile returned and she excused herself quietly.

She came back with a discreet wave. "I have negotiated a table for you in the Algerian room. It had been rented out for a private event." She seemed quietly proud to show us to our spot of two grey leather club chairs tucked in a corner underneath a potted olive tree. The meeting of Provence and the North. "Do you know what you would like?" We did. One glass of Brut for monsieur and Rosé for Madame. "I know it is cliché for the woman to have the pink champagne," I offered, half-apologising. "I would have done the same," Lucie responded while whisking away the "reserved" sign from our table. She disappeared after a simple shrug.

Have you ever seen light that is so golden that it is somehow silver? It cuts through to diamond each surface that it touches. That was our light, embracing the room. The coupes arrived, we clinked with our usual toast. We had the shadows of olive branches tattooed across our foreheads like victory wreaths. We couldn't stop laughing, delighted to rediscover each other, finally, alone.

Something that I learned as a travel writer is that when accidental magic happens, you listen to the lesson it is whispering to you, you take it seriously. And so I proposed that we stay for a second glass. When the Maître d'Hôtel arrived, Christophe agreed, but on one condition.

"The glasses were not completely clean. I would prefer that they are." He pointed to the hard water spots on the base of each glass. He is Parisian, after all. And the Maître d'Hôtel agreed. It was inexcusable, certainly at this (best left unmentioned) price per coupe. And yet all of this was expressed with lightness, even when young Rémy was brought over to the table. "This is the young man responsible for this!" After being held in something like a wrestling lug of the neck, jokingly, Rémy bent over to examine the glasses in all earnestness and apologised. Several minutes of discussion followed as the pair started to clear the room of the furniture. It was a special evening as the room was being prepared for a new set that would be installed tomorrow. "Out with the old, in with new." Our second glasses arrived and on we sipped.

The banter between the four of us continued as they diligently emptied the space. Rémy is from Marseille, which immediately invited such teasing as "Oh, you are too lazy for Paris," which I slightly defended, living as I do in the South. At some point, Christophe demanded that I let my hair down as he wanted to take some photos and then minutes later I got up mid-discussion, without thinking, to help the struggling pair roll up a large Asian carpet from the parquet floors. Into the middle I stepped, my hair hanging over my eyes and we tightened our grips with each advancing step until it too was ready to be taken away. We joked as they lifted it over their backs and swerved between the customers in the hallways.

There is something about Paris when you somehow arrive inside the real of it...there is no explaining the non-mysterious mystery of how it seems to slide beyond time.

The olives eaten, Christophe positioned my suitcase à part and then sat on it to take a few more photos. He always does just what he likes, no matter where we are. Afterwards, as we gathered our belongings into the hallway to pay, Monsieur le Maître d'Hôtel arrived, rushing, with a bottle of each champagne raised in his hands. "No, you can not take the photos with empty glasses!" Chris seemed ready to protest. I readily settled back into our chairs. We savoured the "top off" and more photographs were dutifully taken. We had the entire room to ourselves.

Rémy popped back in. He and I chatted about his experiences overseas. I shared about now being an occasional professor of English and what a key speaking English is in the hospitality industry. That the whole world was open to him, not only that which is depicted in the famous murals of Le Train Bleu. As we finally readied to leave and Christophe paid (thank you, darling), Rémy offered to give me printed brochures in English and in French of the restaurant's history. "Oh! I can give one of my classes about the restaurant! That would be absolutely perfect!" I exclaimed (and ps. I will).

Rémy looked at me, paused and then asked, "Can you wait for a moment, please?" "Yes, of course," I replied, smiling, albeit a bit puzzled. We hadn't seen the time pass, Christophe and I. We rarely do. It was now nearing 9pm and the main dining room was full. We were back at the host stand, but Lucie was gone. I looked at the tables of so many well-meaning tourists, deep in their expectations, without a Parisian in sight. How different it all felt. I don't mean that disparagingly either. Different is just that, different. Paris is just that, Paris. We shifted weight from foot to foot, in our day clothes, as other champagne corks popped.

Some ten minutes passed and then Rémy's head suddenly surfaced at the far end of the room. He seemed to search for us questioningly, as if not sure that we would have waited. He looked slightly relieved that we were still there. I watched as he dodged and weaved through the waiters and clients to arrive towards us. He looked at me straight in the eye and put into my hands an elongated black box. "These will be clean," he said with a grin and then repeated it to make sure that I understood. "Ceux-si seront propres."

I can't remember now if I put my hand to his cheek, or kissed it, or both. My eyes were shining with joy. It is a moment that I hope to never forget. We said our goodbyes. Out Chris and I went, through the doors, to find ourselves on the balcony where our evening had begun. "What is it? He had said something about a book, is that what he gave you?" my lovely man asked. I said nothing. "We'll see at home," I offered.

And so we did, as we opened a (slightly less fancy bottle of Prosecco) to make a toast in our new, beautifully engraved glasses. "To us, à nous, to le sacré Train Bleu."

Le Train Bleu
Gare de Lyon
Paris 75012

Friday, June 21, 2019


I smiled at her right before she stole my phone. 

Her, the pick-pocket. Dyed blond and young. "She would be prettier," I had thought, "without such pronounced eyebrows." A la mode, those heavily-drawn features that have nothing to do with Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner. My heroines of glamour.

I had just posted on Instagram with a photo that I thought quite smart. In the subway, a poster that had originally been an ad for Chanel - oh, that iconic bottle - but with many layers of other advertisements scratched and torn above or below it. Nothing is simple in our modern times. How tired I felt, but I had seen something interesting and that always does me good. And besides, I was in the City of Light. With a twinge of worry I thought of Christophe, whom I was going to meet. This is our dance, l'Express Avignon-Paris, le Paris-Avignon. He lives here, I live there. I dug into my bag and grabbed for the lipstick that I had thrown in at the last minute, a little too pink. But I dabbed it on in my blurry reflection of the métro window with a steady hand but clucking inwardly at the shadows drooping beneath my eyes ("Will he see them?" I wondered. He did, it's clear, but gentleman that he is said nothing.) As I rubbed my lips together with a pop, I felt someone slide into the seat next to me. Me, puffy and overheated in too much clothing (Hello, beginning of menopause), my roll-on awkward between my knees, my tote lop-sided on top of it, I took up too much space. 

I smiled at this young gamine apologetically and shifted to make room as tourists do, trying to make myself smaller. It is then that I am sure, or just after, that her hand reached into my sagging coat pocket. And from there she stole my phone, leaving at the next stop. I had thought it odd that with a slight lift of her chin and nothing more her gaggle of friends had followed, silently. Some thirty seconds later, perhaps a minute at most, instinct kicked in and I reached for what was no longer there. 

It's funny that dance that we do when we lose something. We keep searching the same space as if the object will magically reappear or look to places that it could not possibly be, "just in case." But I knew. So I dragged myself and belongings off the train at the next stop, sweating profusely, to ask at the ticket booth what I should do. "You could go to the commissariat, but..." she smiled wanly and shrugged. "Ca arrive tellement, tellement souvent...tous les temps." And she is right, I had heard the announcement in several languages repeatedly over the speakers, "Attention, there might be pick-pockets onboard." 

The photos. With a wave of nausea, I realised that all of the photos of Christophe and I together, of Rome, of his recent surprise of an overnight stay in the Vaucluse...but mainly of us, laughing...were on the phone that I had foolishly not backed up onto the computer. Gone. I count on my photos to boost my memory problems and look at them when I am having trouble to soothe me. As I approached his apartment, the weight of that loss grew, as did the simple fact that the phone had been a gift of his part, given lightly despite the financial value, which had made the gesture all the more touching to me. 

Admittedly, I arrived on his doorstep with over-the-top drama. (Hello, beginning of menopause, part deux) "I have some bad news." I watched his smile of welcome melt and the corners of his mouth turn down. I ignored Noumea, his bijoux of a dog, who was jumping excitedly around me, tail wagging ferociously. "Your phone was stolen, I was pick-pocketed. I am so sorry." "No, your phone was stolen," he replied calmly. "Ok, well, sit down and we'll call who we need to call to get things sorted out."
It's interesting with Chris. When he is upset with me, which isn't too often, thankfully, he will rarely say anything right away and never with anger. So when, nearly an hour later, he quietly exhaled, "I thought that something terrible had happened...that someone had died," I knew that I had gone too far, had created an All About Me, out of guilt, or self-derision. I apologised to have scared him so. A loss about loss. 

And then began a loop de loop of paper trails and phone company pleading. Such moments are rarely simple in France, especially if you wish to keep the same phone number that you have had for years. I trotted to here and there, being told no or maybe, and was once caught in the rain, heavy ink drops on my coat, head huddled while passing couples pressed together under an awning, as if in a movie about Paris. But it was Paris. It is.

All of these efforts were tiring, so we decided to have an early apéro. The rain said goodbye; the sun came out. We found a table at Café Chéri where the bijoux dog could find space at our feet. Chris and I. Right there, the surrounding crowds forgotten. Nothing between us. Not the siren call of a texto or an Instagram count to check for likes. I couldn't have anyway, for that girl, that deceptive blond, had stolen my phone. I felt giddy all of the sudden. And truly, think about often does one feel giddy these days? Internally, I was exclamatory. "The light on the trees, was it ever that bright? My goodness, look how everyone is walking with faces down, affixed to their portables. How do they not run into each other? Would they notice if they did?" The birds were chirping something that sounded suspiciously like, "Free, free, free." I looked at Christophe. He was telling me a story. I held his gaze and let a certain weight - not necessarily linked to any other - burn off with the last drift of the day gone by. Good for good, and surprisingly, happily, done.

And as today is La Fête de la Musique tonight in France...a bit of something sweet and nostalgic that seems right to me for this post.

Happy Solstice...
Happy Summer (or Winter!)...
I am, as always, so very grateful that you are still here reading even as time goes by.

With Love from Provence,
And joy in my heart,

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Eternal City

"I have a proposal for you..."


"What would you think about...for your vacation time...of...going with me to...Rome?"


It was out of my mouth as soon as I heard the word.

Rome. The Eternal City.

My response, was, what they would say in French, une évidence. Of course, I would go to Rome with Christophe. If I had travelled the world, - lucky me - and yet had never been, the reason was quite simple. I had been waiting to go with him.

He has come into my life like something like a fire-bomb, one that burns in the very best way. The first night that we spoke on the phone, it was until 2am. The second? 5:30. Rooster-crowing time. And so the connection began.

He lives in Paris. I live in Provence. And yet we somehow see each other nearly once a week. Or try our best to do so. I am broke from the train tickets and yet grateful. That was the word I used this morning, in speaking to the owner of my studio flat. She is one of my guardian angels. "Grateful to the Universe?" she asked. "Yes. Exactly," I replied.

And so to Rome.

He doesn't travel like I do, preferring to get up when I usually go to bed in order to take the first flight out. And so I felt a little blurred around the edges as I stepped out of the Termini Train station. Walking head held high because this is Rome after all, and realising with the turning of gazes that the weight that I have put back on (yes, its true, all of it) is actually a good thing in Italy if not in stick straight France. Mamma mia.

And somehow that bubble of non-reality never quite popped. Arrival on the morning of the 22nd, departure on the evening of the 26th. Four quick nights, and no, I won't tell you about those nights. Those are mine. Those are ours.

But the evenings? They were my favorite. It had been my hunch, somehow, but how could I have known? Maybe I have been to la bella Roma before after all, another lifetime ago. To walk and walk those cobblestone streets. To turn a corner and find the Pantheon looming above me, Jack and the Beanstalk-like as tears of surprise rose like the columns lit in a pale golden light. We leaned on each other when we got tired. We kissed and never got gelato.

He planned it all, having lived there last year and only very recently haven given up trying to start a business, too complicated, too frustrating. So he knew what he enjoyed and suspected where I would feel the same. It is amazing how right he was.

The Eternal City.

One could say that Love, with the big L, is the true Eternal City and Rome is an expression of that. Love in all its deep complexities, Rome in love with itself. Christophe and I were in the midst of all that, bouncing around in taxis through numerous piazzas, politely ignoring the well-intentioned texts declaring what we "must" do, knowing that each Rome is personal. In my photo dispatches my beautiful Mother and Sister exhaled, "you look blissfully happy," just as my friend Gérard responded, "you have a glass of wine in your hand in every single one." Both were right.

My joy, my love and my gratitude to Christophe. And to Rome.
For there is only one first time for everything, and this first felt both newer and older than the monuments, full of nothing but beauty and absolutely all that is good.

Grazie, grazie mille.