The AirBnB listing for the apartment said that it was a fourth floor walk-up, but the comments on AirBnB warned us that it was more like five floors. It was five, and it sometimes felt like six because the stairs were so steep, but it was also three minutes on foot from Notre Dame Cathedral, the Cluny Museum, Shakespeare & Co, the English language bookstore, and an M&S Food store (my favorite food market) on Boulevard Saint Michel.
In short, it was in the heart of the Left Bank and pure Paris, down to the water leaks that appeared during our eight nights there, one in the toilet and one above the kitchen sink. At least it dripped in a convenient place!
In any event, the number of floors to climb became insignificant when Nick and Charlotte showed up unannounced to meet our flight from San Francisco and bring us to the apartment: the jolly schlepper only had one suitcase to carry up those five floors, my own, and Nick carried Suzanne’s! And Charlotte drove us in her car from the airport to the apartment, enabling us to avoid public transport with suitcases.
The great thing about having children living in Paris is that when I visit my children, I end up in Paris. Double the pleasure! Suzanne and I spent the first jet-lagged early morning walking from our apartment (it immediately became ours) across the Seine and past the Hotel de Ville to Place des Vosges and the Marais, where we explored up and down the little streets, so full of character, and savored our first perfect baguette, all before 10 am.
Walking was our favorite activity throughout our stay. Not only is there history and beauty at every turn, but having lived there for ten years, the memories don’t quit. One client lived in a beautiful apartment above Metro St Paul that was several hundred years old, and another bought a listed corner home on the Place des Vosges where he and his wife stay when in Paris. We duly admired both before breakfast that first day. Another day, we explored the “quartier” where I had lived in Paris, Denfert-Rochereau, above the catacombs and next to rue Daguerre, a pedestrian precinct for locals.
Visiting Paris with a nice Jewish girl added a dimension which I had not focused on previously. My former employer in Paris, Jack Kevorkian, had revealed the astonishing statistic that the Gestapo had received one or two million (I forget which, but it was seven figures) anonymous letters in Paris or the Paris area denouncing Jews or other enemies of the Third Reich.
Most of those denounced in this cowardly manner found themselves deported in cattle cars to an awful fate. Passing through the huge railway marshaling yards at Drancy on my way to the airport, yards where now commercial freight cars and wagons are shunted from one train to another, I remembered with a shudder that Drancy was the departure point for these evil trains of cattle cars.
Then, exploring the Catacombs, the odd tourist attraction comprised of caves under the city where, they announce, six million skeletons were moved from city cemeteries in the 1800s, hundreds of years of earlier inner city burials moved out of town, Suzanne remarked that the same number of Jews were killed by the Nazis.
Her Hungarian grandfather survived Auschwitz, as did one of his sisters after “treatment” by Josef Mengele, the cunning Nazi sadist who escaped all retribution after the war, but several of their siblings did not. Seeing things through her eyes, I was taken aback by the realization this time that Paris was populated in significant part by those anonymous letter writers and their progeny.
I eagerly pointed out to her a plaque attached to an elementary school near our apartment which said something like “In memory of the Jewish children deported from this school during the Second World War, with the complicity of the Vichy Régime.”
The plaque was in French, and thus inaccessible to most foreigners, and dated 2002, at least 58 years after the events apologized for, but I wanted to show her this (albeit hedged) admission of official responsibility. She was suitably impressed, considering.
Of course, we happy tourists also took in a museum or two. The Quai d’Orsay stood out: where else in the world can you stroll around rooms that feel like your living room in a converted train station, only beautifully lit and displaying a choice selection of original impressionist and post-impressionist art. Original Renoirs, Monets, Gaugins and van Goghs, the list goes on, paintings that we have all seen on posters, beautiful paintings, are right there on the walls. It was the strangest feeling. In the middle of the van Gogh room was a gorgeous, flowing self portrait. Moving slowly around that room, taking in one familiar wonder after another, Don McLean’s “Vincent” was playing in my head: “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
Talking of beautiful, my son Tom came to town about half way through our week there. Nick’s younger brother, he is now 25 years old and lives in Athens. Using his middle name, Arlo, as a working musician, he was justly proud of having written 15 songs during his time in Athens, and of the progress he has been making in recording them. I was really thrilled that Sunshine, his and Nick’s mom, had enabled him to return to Paris when I was there. He has inspired his brother to grow his hair almost as long as his, and I must say that I much appreciate the way that the two of them look.
Athens, where he was introduced by his mother (she has Greek ancestry, her maternal grandmother’s family having come to the US from Crete), apparently agrees with Tom. He felt to me as if he was an enthralled college student (even though he’s not been attending college since leaving Paris last fall), enjoying nothing more than philosophical reflections and debate over a beer or three. I struggled to keep up! He is reading voraciously, finding among the classics (he had asked me for the “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” duly delivered) odd philosophies which I have never heard of.
As he jumped from topic to topic, covering each with equal enthusiasm, I found myself in the traditional role of the old when confronted by the eager and challenging voice of youth: trying to smile while muttering grumpily under my breath!
The one regret of his visit was that Tom’s first live performance, an open mike, took place on the evening after Suzanne and I left for our respective next steps of the trip. We didn’t see him play at all. She took a plane to visit her ailing father (who turned out to be doing much better than she had feared) in Tel Aviv, and I took the Eurostar to see my family in the UK.
Perhaps it is a function of aging, but I find myself more preoccupied than before with the dearly departed. Booked on the overnight sleeper (schlepper on a schleeper!) train from London to Inverness, I figured out that there was time to visit mum’s grave in Birmingham first if I joined the sleeper at its second stop in Crewe.
We had a lovely chat, mum and I, at dusk in the graveyard of the Abbey, Erdington, as another mourner cleaned up her loved one’s grave nearby and arranged vases and flowers around the plot. We always do have a lovely chat, her and I, every time I visit. I told her how well things were going for each of her grandchildren, and she told me not to sweat the little things. Suzanne came into the conversation a couple of times.
No longer jet-lagged after a week in Paris, I slept like a log on the Caledonia Sleeper to Scotland, lulled by the sound of the rails roaring and grinding underneath us and by the lights flashing by through the window. This train is comprised of just about the oldest rolling stock on British railroads (not me, the carriages!), and I remembered similar trips in the same sleeping cars with mum and dad many years ago. One of our first long distance family holidays was on the sleeper train from Birmingham to Stirling, followed by the drive up to Nairn and then across the Highlands to Fort William.
Not a lot of time in the UK this holiday, but I was going to take a day trip around the Isle Of Skye in a minibus. Every time I visit the UK, I have to go to the Highlands. It’s a compulsion: maybe that early family holiday has something to do with it.
Skye was beautiful, with its wild streams and crags, all that it was cracked up to be. I first saw it across the sea from Mallaig during that early family holiday. This was the first time that I had toured the island itself, to its west coast and across its central mountains: “over the sea to Skye.”
My other UK obsession is trains. The BritRailPass took me from London Euston to Birmingham New Street, Birmingham New Street to Erdington and back (visiting mum), Birmingham New Street to Crewe, Crewe to Inverness, Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh and back (visiting Skye), Inverness to London Euston (and a shower in the Virgin Trains lounge in the station), London Paddington to Exeter (visiting Ian Summers), Exeter to Reading General (visiting David Milsom), and then on local trains around Marlow (visiting Sue and Derek) before finally heading out to Heathrow, still by train. I took a total of 17 trains in under five days in the UK: such a jolly schlepper!
My sister Sue had invited me to stay with her and her husband Derek in Marlow before flying back to the US. Marlow is my home town, and it was a real pleasure to be able to spend time there with the two of them. There’s no place like home, in both senses of the phrase, geographic and emotional. Whenever we surviving Stocks are together, we laugh a lot (it helps that we share the same sense of humor) and get along very well. Then we somehow manage to go years without getting together at all. Not this time, though: we’re already arranging our next visit, this time in the US!
Roots are so reassuring, and my roots are in Marlow. Walking into town from Sue and Derek’s home, we passed Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School, the high school where I started smoking so as to spend breaks between classes with friends at smoker’s corner. We bitched and moaned, of course, we were at school, but with hindsight it was a wonderful place. Just next door, between the school buildings and the playing fields, is Albion Cottage, where Mary Shelly is reputed to have completed Frankenstein, the “ghost story” that she wrote on a dare from Lord Byron.
Further along West Street, we walked past the Ship, the pub of my adolescence where the toasted ham and mushroom sandwiches were a stoned delight and the ex-army landlord did not like long hair. We walked down the High Street, where dad and I did the Saturday morning shopping, the family’s main shopping for the week. He would shop at Clark’s, the butchers “established in 1662,” for the Sunday joint, I would shop at Coster’s, the tobacconist’s, for four cartons of cigarettes, yes every week, and we would share the supermarket and split the specialty stores depending on what was needed.
Sue, Derek and I ate brunch at Burger’s, the bakery and cafe on Marlow High Street where she and I have been eating for 49 years, since our family first moved to the town. Burger’s was where mum and dad and Sue and I ate our Saturday lunch throughout Sue’s and my high school years. The Sunday roast was at home: Saturday lunch was at Burger’s: lighter food, reasonably priced, and something for each of us. It has been tastefully refurbished recently, but still feels the same as it always did, a quaint little cafe in a green and bustling riverside town. Marlow is a lot wealthier than it was when we lived there, but still feels the same, like home.
Suzanne and I reunited for the last leg of our holiday. Her older brother Michael was marrying the adorable Cindy at their home on Long Island, his third marriage and her first, and I was looking forward to meeting Suzanne’s family. For one thing, Michael and I already seemed to have something in common, although he does have some catching up to do! For another, she is very close to her whole family.
It was a great wedding! Seriously. The ceremony and reception were both held in the couple’s lovely home on Long Island, only recently rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy. The place felt like a Hollywood movie set one minute and Disneyland the next, lights, LEDs, toys and gadgets everywhere. I love toys and gadgets!
The family name is Small, and at the end of the formal ceremony, as the bride and groom walked toward the reception, the music playing was “It’s a Small World after all:” a theme song from a Disneyland ride!
Over breakfast on the morning of the wedding day, we met the bride’s father, an unassuming fellow who had been a helicopter pilot for the Vietnamese army during the Vietnam war. An immigrant who had just returned from my country of origin, I asked him how often he made it back home. “Never,” came the terse reply. Cho was not much into telling the story, but his new son-in-law, Michael, prodded him.
It turns out that Cho had discovered that the US was withdrawing from Saigon a day before it happened. He called Mout, his wife, and “borrowed” a helicopter, flying it to open land outside her village. She was waiting for him there, as he had asked, with their three children, the youngest a babe in arms. And with the whole village! Mout had told everyone in the village that he was coming, and not surprisingly everyone wanted a ride.
That was not a doable proposition for a helicopter, but Cho took around 20 people with him, he estimates, including his wife and children. That was the most that that he could carry. He couldn’t go straight across Cambodia, he explained, or they would have been shot at, and so he followed the coast around to Thailand.
It was a long flight, and he was obliged to stop to refuel. Army helicopters did not typically refuel on civil airfields, and he was asked to pay cash for the fuel. His passengers did what hitchhikers do, and chipped in. They all made it safely to Thailand, and that explains why Cho has never been back to his home. Someone didn’t appreciate that lost helicopter.
The wedding was an eclectic kind of gathering. The war hero and his friends mingled with the happy couple’s glamorous and good-looking peers. Suzanne’s father couldn’t make it, but his wife Doris made the trip from Israel to bring him closer to the celebration, and she brought her children and grandchildren. The cockney side of my family taught me long ago that the best parties include several generations, and this wedding proved it again.
The children from each side of the new family got to know each other, and some even visited Manhattan together the next day. Their parents pretended not to notice, but mentioned the young people’s collective trip into the city to each other. Suzanne’s academic brother, Scott, and her toy-loving professional brother, Michael, chatted eagerly with each other and their hippy sister, Suzanne, catching up. The maid of honor lives in Florida and works at the House of Blues in Downtown Disney at Disney World: Disney again!
There was also what every wedding should have: lots of chocolate, a ton of cake, and mounds of ice cream.
And then there was the person who was long gone by the time this wedding came around, but who was present in the minds and hearts of her three children throughout the weekend. Together, they all looked through photographs of her and their dad from their happy past, all stacked in a shabby cardboard box which Michael had produced from somewhere.
Their mother too had been in a concentration camp as a little girl, with their grandmother, but it was a camp which the Nazis showed to the Red Cross, and so at least they were fed. When her children started enjoying summer camps in the US and Israel, she asked tongue in cheek what was wrong with her camp, why hadn’t it boasted any swimming pool or other play activities, and her children had all laughed.
And that’s how you do it.