French Lessons

“The French think they’re better than us because they are,” says my wife. After spending just one day in France, I agreed. First, the French see food as art. Secondly, they take the time to savor the results. What more can you say about a country where Napoleonic emperors decreed quality standards for milling and mixing, along with instructions on kneading the dough. If storming the Bastille changed anything, it was bread.

I never bothered to notice the name of a boulangerie that became a daily stop during our time there. Instead, my eyes were drawn to the crispy baguettes filling the shelves and bins. The scent of fresh baked everything pulled me through the door. My eyes always landed on a sugary brown texture draped across slice after slice of quiche. A fork full of the buttery crust and cheesy egg mixture was a wakeup call – I’d never had quiche like this. And I couldn’t wait for more. As I finished off each flakey crumb, I tasted the despair of knowing I’ll never possess such plump pleasure back home.

For the French, food and wine give life to artful living. But there’s more. As we strolled through the back streets of Monmartre, each bronze bust and placard reminded us that we were following the footpaths of Picasso, Braque, and Apollinaire. I felt comfortable as the foreigner. Paris is completely at ease with having guests. Its art embraces you. Its carousels invite you to travel to Naples, Venice, and Rome only to return to the Eiffel Tower as you step off the well-worn platform.

What inspires the French and foreigners alike? France. It’s not just in the soil. It’s in the mind. It’s a way of seeing. It allowed Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Valery to speak in symbols. It prodded Rops to paint a shapely nude walking a pig. It forced Duchamp to focus on a blurred nude. Picasso and Braque were set free from two dimensional restraints. Their multifaceted guitars gave rise to cut ‘n paste.

I don’t keep score when it comes to one culture versus another.  I just try to take each one in.  It’s how I see the world.  Although, one thing that makes the French better is that, unlike the American obsession with the trivial routines of celebrity reality, France makes room for more high-minded realities. It invites them in, adding each one to the buffet, and cries out, “Feast your eyes!”

Chicago

Fuzzy impressions are all that I have left from the trip my daughter and I made to Chicago about five years ago. Our first stop was at one of several hotel bars that overlooked the Miracle Mile.  I thought she’d like getting a view of the glitzy storefronts and mobs of shoppers to set the tone for the next few days.  Plus it gave us a chance to grab a drink and a light lunch before our afternoon trek.

We had already checked-in at a boutique hotel a few blocks from Michigan Ave and the Oak Street Beach.  The room had just enough space to get around the two twins beds and a desk below a relatively large window.  We had an expansive view of the air shaft separating the hotel from its neighbor.  Both buildings were tall enough to cast a constant shadow over the open space, making the dingy brick across the way a dull deep red.  So, needless to say, we didn’t have any reason to spend time in the room other than to change clothes or to sleep.

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We completed our pilgrimage to the EGG that afternoon.  The stroll along Michigan Ave was a bit like walking the midway at a carnival.  We passed every sort of person on vacation one would expect to see in the heartland.  Stocky grey-haired, middle-aged ladies in vibrant variations of pastel pink blouses combined with white peddle-pushers toddled behind their husbands dressed comfortably in primarily kaki.  Fanny packs and belly bags were still the trend and were the badge of the practical-minded tourist.

 

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As can be expected when you’re alongside one of the Great Lakes, the weather was reliably variable.  As the folks in Michigan like to say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait awhile cuzz it’s gonna change.”  And it did throughout most of our short stay.  Fortunately, it was late August so we had warm days and comfortable evenings even with the random showers.

We got caught in a cloud burst while wandering through Millennium Park the following morning so we ducked into a pavilion and were quickly joined by a husband and wife with two middle-school kids in tow.  All four were dressed in New York Yankee garb with the classic NY cap and pinstriped shirt, complimented by matching navy blue shorts.  I took the parents to be in their mid to late thirties.  They both were attractive, athletically fit, and happily on vacation.  It was vividly clear whose team they were on if and when it came down to a debate over whose city is best.  The thought of broadcasting that I was from Detroit never occurred to me.  But much like stereotypical New Yorkers, they didn’t hesitate to be loud and proud.

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Chicago is all about waterways.  We spent another afternoon strolling the riverwalk for a few hours, eventually getting out on the water.  We discovered that the best views of the city are had when you’re not in it.  The drone of cars and buses disappeared beneath the constant splashing we heard while bobbing on a sightseeing boat plowing its way toward the lake.  Our ride along the river came to a standstill at the harbor locks as we joined a raft of boats clustered together.  As captains tried not to drift into one another, a shirtless sailor used a paddle to maintain space between himself and a slender speedboat aimlessly adrift with three bikini-clad blondes enjoying cocktails and giggly conversation.

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Once we were set free and beyond the enormous steel gates, our skipper headed straight toward Lake Michigan’s expansive horizon.  We quickly left the weekend pleasure boats behind and were in the company of a cabin cruiser headed away from us and up the coast.  We reached open water and began to turn back toward the Chicago skyline.  It was a brand new sight for both of us.  I thought of the other cities and sights that my daughter and I had shared during past travels.  Like London when she was just beginning to prepare for kindergarten.  And like Madrid when she was transitioning to middle-school.  But those trips were taken while accompanied by my past wives – her mother, then her step-mother.  Now she was in college and living independently.  I was single and turning over a new chapter as well.  Among all the impressions that trip left behind for me to mull over, the clearest recollection is of how much fun it was to share time together.  Just the two of us.

 

 

 

Going Places

The urge to travel is the strongest when I’m at home.  The TV is most often the enabler.  Looking at places I haven’t been immediately grabs my imagination and makes me want to pack and go.  Train travel is the best.  The ease of just being a rider without the need to know directions is always a relief, but even more so when I’m being hurled forward on tracks.  The certainty of arriving intact is much stronger than when I’m in the air.

The window always frames a cinematic view.  Passing landscapes of undulating hillsides add another rhythm to the gentle sway and thumps that are soon forgotten.  Towers and cranes alongside rusty steel warehouses seem to popup out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.  The row of parked cars comprised of a few Fiats, a Peugeot, and other random models leaves me wondering what it’s like to work there and how glad I am that I don’t.

Each station arrival introduces a new cast of characters.  An elderly woman dressed in a freshly pressed black jacket, a strand of pearls, and a plain grey dress leaves a powdery scent trailing behind as she struggles to her seat.  She likes the idea of wearing lilacs.  The scent holds the memory of her wedding day and late husband.  For her, traveling is bothersome.  She only does it because her daughter rarely has the time to come see her.

 

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I can’t decide whether it’s the people or the places that I most enjoy seeing pass by.  Either way, it’s all about the escape.  The rest is entertainment.  Permanence is a source of conflict for me.  Each day is a question mark.  Is this all that there is or will ever be?   Will a change in scenery or in the assortment of nameless faces really make much difference?  Not really.  But it’s always worth it to me.  The thought of being the traveling observer appeals to me.  Just an anonymous man seated beside the window watching others live out their expectations, moving from station to station without a set destination, not knowing when or where to get off.

 

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All Rights Reserved, Jeff Griffiths 2017