When I was a junior in high school, I decided I wanted to be the kind of guy who was able to speak French. Looking back, that was one of thousands of choices that made me the person I am now. I chose wine over beer, sarcasm over pratfalls, writing over drawing, culture over machismo. For thirty years, I kept almost learning French: a year in high school, two semesters in undergrad college, two more in grad school. Finally, last spring, I completed French Course I on Duolingo, which means I can speak French about as well as a slow second-grader in Lyon.
By the time I finished college, my conception of my future self expanded toward visiting Paris. My French II professor showed us slides of le Centre Georges Pompidou, aka the museum of modern art in Beaubourg, and I was hooked. Here was a playground for the intellectual cutting edge. Such lofty heights were, it has to be said, a world away from my poor upbringing in Crowder, Oklahoma, and in more ways than one. I'm not sure I ever really believed I'd be able to afford traveling to Europe someday. It was just a romantic daydream.
The day my wife Amanda took me to pose for my very first passport photo, as a Christmas present early this year, it all started to turn a bit real. I could feel the world spinning to meet me. I owned a passport. A passport! Like Anthony Bourdain and Jason Bourne! We dove into guidebooks and travel videos. Little by little, Paris took on actual dimensions. I drew up an itinerary, swooning a bit as I included such landmarks as l'Arc de Triomphe and le Château de Versailles.
Our grand week arrived. Amanda's fall vacation began; we took her parents to Din Tai Fung in Bellevue (yum) and spent an afternoon at the Washington State Fair (sigh). Those, of course, were mere warm-ups to break in our shoes. (It didn't work.) Then came the big day, and for eleven hours, we sat in a metal tube in the sky with two irate babies screaming in our faces the whole way. It was sensory overload. I think we were exhausted before we even stepped into Charles de Gaulle Airport. A young woman who looked like an international supermodel helped us figure out the RER ticket dispenser, and off we went to Gare du Nord on Paris's northern side. The Metro system is clean and straightforward, so before long we were schlepping down the hill in Montmartre, Paris's scenic 18eme arrondissement. AirBnB had hooked us up with a Parisian couple, Joël and Anne, and the view from their flat encompassed l'Arc de Triomphe and the upper third of la Tour d'Eiffel. It hit me like I brick: here I am. I'm really here. This happened. Paris is a real place, I'm standing in it, and I've become the kind of person who can do that. My mind is still blown.
From the bottom of my heart, I want you to understand this isn't one of those "I can go to Paris and you can't" kind of stories. I'm as stunned as you are that I finally pulled it off, and I couldn't and wouldn't have achieved it without having Amanda by my side. I've been broke the overwhelming majority of my life. Time was, a trip from L.A. to Vegas was a huge undertaking. But Amanda and I made the decision not to have children, followed quickly by the offer of better jobs, and it's made all the difference. We can afford to take a major trip every two years now, barring future tragedy, and it's important to me to take you along to the degree I can manage it. I posted iPhone pics to Facebook each night, so some of you have already taken that journey with us, metaphorically speaking. This is really just a wrap-up, my takeaway from the City of Lights. As I've said dozens of times this past week, it was life-changing. I mean that.
For those who are just catching up, here's a rough outline of our trip:
Day 1: Travel, check in, Musée d'Orsay, Rue Cler street market, Tour d'Eiffel
Day 2: Louvre, Avenue Champs-Élysées, l'Arc de Triomphe, Lido
Day 3: Versailles, Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Bateaux Mouches
Day 4: Saint-Sulpice, Centre Pompidou, Ile de la Cité, Notre Dame, Shakespeare and Company, El Fogón
Day 5: Montmartre, Sacré-Cœur, La Bonne Franquette, Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera Bastille
Day 6: Catacombs, Panthéon, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Frenchie's Wine Bar
Day 7: Cimetiere du Père-Lachaise, Bus #69, Musée de Cluny, Rue Montorgeuil
Day 8: Fly home.
I know. I can't believe we fit it all in, either, especially knowing I did it on mangled feet. I was stupid enough to believe travel guru Rick Steves when he told me Parisians would never be caught dead wearing tennis shoes. That's true for the most part; their walking shoes are apparently made for actual walking, however, and mine were clearly not. It took me five full days to recover back in Washington.
So what was so damn life-changing about Paris? I'd never felt so immersed in Western history before. Paris is named for a Roman tribe that settled on Ile de la Cité, the Parisii, and the Cluny Museum still has an authentic Roman bath in its basement. In the Louvre, I stood next to a four-thousand-year-old, statuary representation of the Code of Hammurabi, the first known system of laws and civil behavior on Earth. Its impact has echoed throughout the millennia--courtesy of the Law of Moses, who was certainly aware of its existence. We attended Mass in a church, Saint-Sulpice, where services were first held in the 13th century. Notre Dame is over three times older than our country. It boggles the mind. I imagined peasants hoisting those stone blocks hundreds of feet into the air, almost literally breaking their backs in reverence to the Eternal. And whatever the Eternal is, well, their work added to it.
Coming back to America was surreal. It was like that first night you take your intended to eat dinner with your family. Suddenly, you see your squabbling blood relations through fresh eyes. You've had years to get used to all their quirks, but now, you realize with the force of a hurricane that your loved ones are actually a high-functioning coven of sociopaths. So it was in the Dallas airport, where my fellow Yanks were all costumed like obnoxious grade-school kids: loud slogans on their clothes, baseball caps, floppy shorts. It was embarrassing! Already I missed the dapper scarves and pleated pants of the working-class Parisians on the Metro. Even worse? These Americans were on the plane to Seattle with us. They were our homies! They were us!
I don't know how I've changed, but I have. It's resolved a darkening dissatisfaction that could've morphed into a slow-burn midlife crisis. I've come to understand that I really am an adult now; it's okay if I look, act, and feel like one; and I can have adult goals. It isn't just about hanging on till the next directing project or Star Wars sequel. It's about stepping into the world, bit by bit, city by city, land by land. Next on our docket is Rome. Amanda and I watched a travel show about it yesterday, and I was struck, as I was every moment in Paris, by the sheer scale of things. I don't mean skyscrapers, our vast bland American expanses of featureless glass. I mean towers and columns and monuments of marble and granite, adorned from base to point with perfections of decorative art that took lifetimes to master. These were multi-generational projects. Once upon a time people knew they were building their legacies. I want to write that way, too, to demonstrate my hope that what I say will outlive me. I want the work I do to reflect the very best I can muster.
Yet I also remember standing in the Orsay Museum, Paris's unforgettable repository of impressionist art, and knowing deep down I would never, ever, could never be this good at anything. Standing before a Van Gogh or Renoir, one understands keenly that one is in the presence of the divine. I don't mean those artists were touched by the hand of God, whatever that even means. I mean they were themselves superhuman, by any measure I've ever learned to apply to that word. Of course no one understood them. How do you stand in the presence of a superman and not feel just a touch of resentment? If you were an artist who'd made a comfortable living all your life as a human-level painter, how do you look at a "Starry Night Over the Rhone" and not want to chuck all your paintings out the window and start looking for work as a barista instead?
When Napoleon's troops were given the daunting assignment of stacking six million dead Parisians in the catacombs under the city, it's pretty clear they found the job humbling. They did beautiful work, but between each crib of bones is a marker etched with some poetic quote or Bible verse about the mad inevitability of death. They carved meditations about the ephemeral nature of being. Now they too are gone. We walked through acres of tombs, tumbling over each other in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, their markers obscured, the names all but forgotten. We raced past them in a search for the late Oscar Wilde, barely sensing they held babies in their arms and made wonderful meals and had lives full of passion and hope, the meat of their lives. We wondered instead how long it would be before our own mortal remains added to yet another dusty layer of obscurity.
So here I am, a mere hitchhiker on a world that keeps getting bigger and bigger the deeper I look at it, pondering my own worthlessness in the shadow of superbeings, yet hoping to leave a few thousand meaningful words in my wake. It's the only way I know how to justify my stay on this orb. Paris made me feel tiny. It made me feel transient. It also reminded me what wonderful things mere humans can accomplish when the full moon rises over the Seine.