In 2019, I went back to Paris after twenty years, and visited the northwest coast of France for the first time, with my youngest brother and a Parisienne friend who is also a dancer. I have always loved French culture and French sensibilities.
This was the first time I had traveled overseas with my youngest brother, and also his first time to France. He decided somewhat late in the game to join me for the trip, which I was giddy about. My baby brother is a guy you can’t help but love: big personality, big smile, big appetite for life. He is also much younger than I am, eleven years younger. Ready for any adventure, he got his passport renewed through the USPS expedited process, and managed to get seats on the flights I had booked months earlier. We were off.
After we land at Charles de Gaulle, we take the Roissy bus to the heart of the city. On the bus, he finally starts listening to some audio guide he had downloaded for the trip: tips for beginners. With his headset on, straddling our two giant suitcases, I watch him listen with a big grin on his face. He’s laughing, a little loudly, every few minutes. The French, or those who I presume are clearly French—the women with smart and economical self-possession, the men with insouciant tousled hair and eyeglasses that declare intelligentsia, baked-in—tolerate him with a gentle indifference. Soon, he is nearly doubled over with laughter. I’m getting a bit embarrassed, but can’t help but giggle along, having no idea what he’s hearing. I’ve already realized that my ability to occasionally pass as French, or European generally—an ability that I’ve enjoyed for prior travels to this part of the world—is much less likely to work on this trip.
Soon my brother passes me the headphones, rewinds the download a bit, and hits play. The topic is how to look like you are French. I’m already grinning like a fool, just at the subject. The commentary is cheeky and light: the key strategy for Americans? Stop smiling. What, the French woman on the recording says, do you have to smile about, anyway? At this point, our cover is totally blown, as we both dissolve into cackles.
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For the rest of the trip, with near-hourly frequency, we joke about the smiling. My brother finds it essentially impossible to stop smiling, just as a matter of course, and most assuredly when visiting an astonishingly gorgeous foreign city. And when I remind him of this—at the Musée d’Orsay, in line at Sainte-Chapelle, strolling around Montmarte and climbing to Sacré-Cœur (where we are practically assaulted by tourist trolls)—we crack up every time, which makes things all the more obvious, and all the more hilarious.
Of course, the first day after a long overnight flight is the hardest. The delirium, the feeling that you can’t possibly stay awake one more hour. We were fortunate to have gorgeous weather that first day, which kept us from going too far astray from the plan to stay awake. We were also lucky to have especially merciful exchanges with servers in those surreal hours. How many piteous jet-lagged Americans they must confront. But at the small bistro where we had some brunch, and at the unassuming local brasserie for dinner, the food was excellent and the kindness palpable. I love it when the French tease us in good-hearted fashion. There was plenty of that over dinner, and plenty of genuine instruction too, when I asked for instance, what is the precise, proper way to request a small cheese course, in French.
And on our first full day following that, we met up with my long-time Parisienne friend, Pablo, who I hadn’t seen for upwards of twenty years. He was with his boyfriend, and we all spent a long afternoon at a small museum and its café in Paris. It was pure joy to see my friend again after so many years. Pablo and I met in a modern dance course I was teaching in Cincinnati, around the year 2000. We had hit it off immediately then, and managed to stay in touch by hook and crook, even before Skype and Whatsapp. Pablo is a gifted performer (dancer and singer), and has had an impressive career on the stage. He’s still performing, and teaching too, occasionally. Pablo is fluent in English (and Spanish, I think) and his boyfriend, who I adored, speaks a bit of English. Between the four of us, the language “games” were pretty hilarious. Our server at the museum café even turned a great little joke on me, after I mistakenly asked for “café du lait” instead of “café au lait.” And then, when I caught the joke, and knowingly smiled at him across the room, he was both embarrassed and delighted, all at once. Everyone got a kick out of it.
At the end of that afternoon, the four of us hatched a spontaneous plan to take an overnight road trip at the coming weekend, to Giverny, Rouen, Beuvron en Auge, Omaha Beach, and a bunch of other quick stops, en route to and then up the coast. I can hardly describe the pure joy of those two days, with my friend as intrepid guide, his darling boyfriend, and my very American baby brother. We zipped around in Pablo’s little Ford, pastries at the ready, and listened to his collection of classic Motown hits, current musicals like Dear Evan Hansen, and French pop going back to the 70s. We stayed the night at a small manor house in the countryside, where Pablo knew the innkeepers, had waffles while strolling the beach at Trouville, and accidentally “discovered” another medieval cathedral in Bayeux, merely because we had gone there to get cheap petrol. During one of our café stops, Pablo’s boyfriend convinced all of us to order chocolat chaud à la crème instead of coffee. To all of our astonishment, each little tray came out not only holding a hot mug of cocoa, piled with rich whipped cream and chocolate shavings, but there was a mini mug as well, accompanying each order. Those were filled entirely with more whipped cream. As Pablo put it, “in case we didn’t have enough already.” Only in France.
My brother speaks a bit of Spanish, and lived very briefly in Bolivia when he was much younger. He’s never been exposed to much French, and this was another source of great fun. I can speak a tiny amount of French, yet apparently have a fairly good accent. I also adore the language, even though I’m not super proficient. So, I always make it a point to greet people in French, and to make an effort, even though I realize that most Parisians at least, speak plenty of English. My brother was determined to learn a few very basic phrases. But it was surprisingly hard for him, given his history with Spanish. Saying “de rien” (meaning “it’s nothing,” or the equivalent of “you’re welcome” when someone thanks you) seemed easier to encourage than the more complex “je vous en prie” for these purposes. But goodness, the pronunciation of “de” in French! It always came out day or doo when he tried, and so we would just sit and repeat “de” with a French accent, until we were blue in the face. And then an hour later he would say day rain, or somesuch, and we would descend into more fits of laughter.
And speaking of weather, each day that the forecast called for rain, we geared up for trudging— but it would turn out to be sunny and glorious, at least to start. The day that we spent on Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis involved an unexpected morning detour to the Luxembourg Gardens and the Pantheon, with blue skies all around. But later in the afternoon, once we had stepped out of Sainte-Chapelle, the skies began to darken. We had talked about Notre Dame, and whether my brother wanted to take a tour or walk through. I had been there before, and felt Sainte-Chapelle was a more appealing spot. We are both supremely lapsed Catholics, to boot, and decided that seeing the outside of the Cathedral would suit us fine. There’s nothing like the magisterial Notre Dame to stop you in your tracks. This time, we also walked down the side street, where you can see the gardens just behind the cathedral. It seemed especially serene in that viewing, with a few people reading there in quiet, away from the thronging tourists. But soon we scurried across the bridge to Île Saint-Louis, as a fierce squall began to kick up. We dashed into a small café, by sheer luck, as the rain began to crash down— and watched from the only front window table as the wind popped people’s umbrellas inside out. Just outside our window, a Parisienne man nonetheless requested a seat outside, with barely any cover. He drank his coffee there, in defiance of the storm. In the near distance, Notre Dame hulked.
Only a week and a day after our return, the tragic fire at the Cathedral ignited. My friend Pablo texted me from Paris, just as the news broke. Amidst the shock of that seemingly impossible blaze, I wrote the following…
Mary on the Half Shell when you told me that Notre Dame was burning I thought of my next-door neighbor who has a statue of Mary in her yard—— robes of robin's egg blue veil of sullied white outstretched arms when we moved in, Mary occupied an inconspicuous corner of the neighbor's yard—— now our lady is placed front and center properly on the property line, her back permanently turned to me this neighbor who I imagine with a head full of golden rules has never spoken a word to me in the four years since we moved in good catholic