Some incidents, from Geoffrey’s meager, inadequate, pathetic memory
You may recall that we discovered Le Récamier years ago after visiting EDF, a smallish exhibition hall (foundation) evidently funded by the electric company. (I don’t know, and I’m too lazy to look it up.) Anyhow, after lunch we walked next door to the EDF and discovered an important change had been made. One could no longer just stroll in. One now needed a reservation. “How does one do this?”, I asked the attendant. Online at their website. I took my phone out, opened the website, and made a reservation for whatever time it was, and the guy let us in. I mean, … Anyway, it hardly mattered. This exhibit – I can’t even remember the theme – was disappointing. (Francesca tells me it was fascinating, devoted to international travel. Hmm.)
Francesca tells me what I am about to write happened on this first free day. I thought it was on our 2nd full free day weeks later, but she may be right. (Truth be told, she’s probably right.) Anyway, I bought 5 graphic novels (in French; completing my collection of this particular series) at FNAC, 14€ each. The Montparnasse FNAC is one of our favorite places in Paris, surpassing the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower … bad examples, as I am not fond of either, at least up close. From a safe distance they’re swell. But neither of those popular tourist destinations have a floor devoted to graphic novels, and no one in the world can surpass the French in this genre – and I may even know what I’m talking about.
Later we were sitting at a cafe, and I was chafing at the idea of hauling these big books around for the rest of the trip. I opened google maps and searched for nearby post offices, found one not far away that would be open for hours. Francesca said, just go, so I raced to the post office with the books, the intention being to mail them home. This operation was not quick, inhibited by my French, and the need to find an appropriately sized box, but in the end I was asked what I was sending. (Until then the books were in a bag.) Just books. Ok, books go at a discount. She looked in the bag at the books. Are all these books in French? Why yes, yes they are. Further discount! WTF. Evidently anyone wishing to spread the French language to corners of the globe where it is not the primary language should have minimal impediments put in their way in that endeavor. Anyway, sending five 14€ books home cost me 13€. This was a tediously pleasant experience. [PS: the books arrived at our home about the same time we did. 4 weeks, so Francesca is right about when this happened.]
After that we headed to a street full of designer shops. Francesca has written about how disappointing their window displays were this year, still suffering the effects of covid. Thereafter I pointed us to the Seine, and we moseyed along its banks. This never grows old. And that night we had pizza at Gastrolab near our apartment, a student run cafe full of students. It was most pleasurable. Haut cuisine it was not, but it made up for that with its pleasant scholastic ambiance.
The next morning and noontime we had to ourselves. We went to La Samaritaine, a place we had found quite pleasurable a year before. But things had changed. The luster had tarnished, possibly due to a dearth of wealthy patrons (covid?), and increasingly many hoi polloi wishing to goggle at the really pretty interior. Sigh.
The Barbarians Descend
So, anyway, as I say, a bit more than half of this trip will involve my old friends coming to visit from the UK and CH, and Francesca’s friend Maryline popping in and out.
The first two of my friends were Heidi and Clara, whom I’ve mentioned often before. Heidi, Clara and Maryline are all in week one, so it is now in the past, by 3 days. Anyway, regarding Heidi, to paraphrase the GrandMaster (oh, come! Thor Ragnarok?): “It’s all because of [her]. Your [ex]. Whatever the story is. Relationship complicated. I’m sure there’s a big history.”
That history will always be a source of slowly diminishing tension, for Francesca re Heidi …. “big history”. In the hours before the gathering, the tension was uncomfortable. Teeth were being ground. And yet, in the event the presence of Clara and Maryline lightened the mood, and good times were handed out to all.
And by the way, in all past EU trips Francesca and I would dine at night in our apartments, preparing our own comestibles in well appointed kitchens. (Well, my contribution was admittedly minimal, and just as well.) So this whole Parisian nightlife thing was new to us. It was nice. We may continue the habit next year even in the absence of visitors.
The next day Heidi and Clara, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, went off to the large, seedy (it is rumored) flea market northeast of Paris central. We did not see them again. Having no interest in seedy flea markets, I allowed Francesca and Maryline to drag me to huge Pop Air (?) bubble fun fair. Bubble?
Many many kinds of bubbles, and hugely fun.
Maryline, who’d lived 15 years in Paris, and so has many friends in the city (she is a living, breathing, wild woman archetype), had one with her, first gen French with Algerian parents. We all went into the big bubble pool, including Maryline’s friend, who – not being as brave as the rest of us – became a bit uncomfortable, for once in the bubble pool, especially if seated, getting out is less simple. In her efforts to extract herself from the pool, she squirmed, and under the surface, inadvertently, Maryline’s friend braced her heels against my crotch. But, you know, due to the cancer, the tender bits were no longer there, and I was able the support her like that until others grabbed her arms and helped her out. No harm done. If she knew what she’d just done, she gave no indication. Maybe she was just too polite to mention to me that I seem to have misplaced my testicles, perhaps in the bubble pool, where they would be ever so difficult to locate, and subsequently reattach. And how embarrassing would it have been had I, by mistake, grabbed two of the plastic balls and attempted to reattach them? So, yeah, her best course of action was just to remain politely silent.
That night we spent with Maryline and another of her friends. We ensconced ourselves at an excellent cafe, had drinks, then, a couple of hours later, having worn out our welcome (not really; I never encountered a French cafe that became uncomfortable with its guests occupying space for anything up to infinitely many hours), we wandered across the street and had a sushi din. Good times; good times. I mean, really. I just love Paris cafes, and I love (good) sushi. And we were dining out! With entertaining people. I mean, what the fuchsia, we never used to dine out in the evening. And here we were rapidly making a habit of it. And it was proving quite pleasant. I was even able to use some French to exchange humorous quips with the guy who ran the place, and he did not threaten me with death, so I must have done well. Quelle surprise.
Our first week in Paris done (nearly completely dominated my visitors), we took a TGV to Annecy, picked up a car, and drove to Chamonix – our 4th visit there. Alone in our previous visits, a family of Swiss friends came down this time, and we spent all of our time there together. Exhausting, but worth it. Macé, the father, suggested that Annecy would have been an easier place for them to meet up with us. But that misses the point – several points. All eight of my friends that actually managed to connect with us during this trip somehow seemed to exude a misapprehension that our trip, with all its plans, was secondary to connecting up with them. In particular, Francesca and I dislike Annecy. We like Chamonix. Very nice to see friends and all, but this is our trip. There are limits to our willingness to adapt our plans to the wishes of people who actually live in Europe.
To get to Chamonix from Annecy you have to skirt quite close to the 11.6km long Mont Blanc Tunnel connecting France and Italy. The day after our arrival in Chamonix (we arrived on a Wednesday) was the start of a 4 day holiday weekend, their version of Memorial Day. Because we were not going through the tunnel that day, we avoided the hugely long lines of cars and trucks waiting to transit the tunnel to Italy. The trucks were lined up on the right, at a dead stop – a couple of kilometers of them. Periodically that line was punctuated by a confused car having decided the trucks knew what they were doing. Some of these, deciding anything was better than waiting with the trucks, got out of that line and ambled forward to the end of the car line some ways ahead.
Now keep in mind, 5 days later I’d need to somehow navigate to and through that tunnel. I did not relish the thought. Anyway, skipping ahead, we decide to leave a day early, friends being gone, and the pleasures of Chamonix (I’m getting to it) being used up. It’s now Sunday, the last day of the big welcome-summer holiday, and we’re driving up towards the tunnel entrance, looking for the end of the line of cars we might be sitting behind before we pay the 50€ to get through the tunnel. Still driving … still looking … looking. And suddenly, there it is, the gaping maw of the tunnel. Absolutely no one is in front of us. We are the entire line. I pull up to the booth where I am to hand over my credit card. I do so, then it is handed back, and the gate rises. Francesca meanwhile is sure passports and a blood sample will be required, and she’s putting together her material. However, as the gate is open, I decide to ignore whatever it is she is doing, and I drive forward and into the long dark tunnel. And by the way, Italy is still quite mountainous on the other side of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, and we’ll encounter over 20km of smaller tunnels before we are through following the Badger Moles to the coast (only in the northeast are there any lowlands; I am always surprised how mountainous Italy is).
It should be added that, once we exited the tunnel on the Italian side, the line of cars and trucks heading north into the big tunnel from Italy to France was kilometers long. I theorize that the French like to holiday in Italy, but the Italians find no concomitant charms in their neighbors to the north. The Italians have everything they need in Italy, and they are surrounded by a country with a warm culture. I like France, a lot, but I wouldn’t call it warm. Rather disgruntled is the mot juste.
In a text message Maryline wrote: “Geoffrey, you surely complain, judge and criticize a lot; I think you are ready to become a French citizen. Dual citizenship is legal 😋” I immediately replied with a request for Information re where to sign up. I’d always found French sultry sulkiness more charming than aggravating. Maryline is right – I’m a perfect fit.
We never met anyone at the Chamonix Airbnb. I was instructed to find a nearby bicycle with some red on it, input a code into a lock box hanging from it, and extract the key. All this after our rental’s GPS tried to send us down a pedestrian way, and over one of those metal cylinders that require a member card to get through (bollards: they retract into the ground if you’ve got a pass; we never do have one). By the way, before I carry on to Chamonix, and while on the subject of our vehicles questionable navigation software, later in the trip the rental’s GPS was surprisingly lax in one other huge way. On our way to Santa Margherita we crossed over the elegant new bridge that allows one to get by Genoa without going through Genoa. A couple of years ago the old bridge collapsed, with some loss of life. Anyway, our rental’s GPS navigation map is not updated as often as google’s map. Fortunately, after 9 frustrating days of failing to get internet connectivity, Francesca got a text from Verizon when we crossed into Italy asking if she’d like their pay daily plan. She replied in the affirmative, and voila. So by the time we got to the bridge we had trusty navigation. The point of this rambling discourse was the behavior of the rental’s navigation map while we were on a bridge it didn’t know existed. Francesca said that ignorant map indicated, seemingly, that we were flying. Cool. Modern times. I glanced only briefly at the thing, being surrounded by scads of EU trucks and cars, these requiring almost 100% of my attention. So, anyway, that happened.
Now in Chamonix, we had dinner out with Swiss family, continuing our string of violating our previous practice of dining in and going to bed, maybe after an episode or two of Avatar, the Last Airbender (we’re watching the series again on this trip; the Fire Nation drill is even now approaching Ba Sing Se; omg!).
The next day we bought 6 two day passes for the lot of us and and used them to take the train up to the Mer de Glace glacier viewing point – the 2nd biggest glacier in Europe. Recall from my previous travel memoirs that 5 or 6 years ago we’d visited Chamonix, taken the train up to the glacier viewing point, took a small gondola down toward the glacier, walked down 8000 steps (perception and reality possibly not synching in this instance), and followed a path into ice tunnels in the glacier, all cool blue and glowing. Awesome, right? Then we went back up top and had lunch at the patio restaurant overlooking the majestic river of ice. A friendly dog put his chin on my lap and made idle conversation about any leftovers we might have. A good day. (Sniff … blubber … sob …)
This time … you know, it’s just fucking unbelievable. The patio restaurant was gone – and I don’t mean closed – gone; and the glacier had receded up the valley by over 4 kms. In a very few years it will have receded around a bend in its valley, and no longer be visible from the viewing stand. Access to the glacier was impossible.
So obviously we could no longer actually get down to where it used to be. The gondola was closed. The steps below may have been there still, but without the gondola we would never know. And where the patio restaurant used to be there were now a couple construction vehicles. Maybe they’re going to make a path up nearer the the glacier, so you can look down at it. Of course, they’ll need to extend the path over 800 meters every year to keep up with the recession. Fucking hell.
[Meanwhile, it is now July and we have returned home, and in France, UK, Portugal and Spain, very high temperatures are shattering records. Wildfires are burning from Portugal to Russia. It’s just fucking insane. Small wonder Gen-Z films are dominated by post apocalyptic survival dramas.]
A few years ago Francesca and I got to the absurdly high restaurant near the Mont Blanc pinnacle (refer to one of my previous travel memoirs). The air was thin, causing me to move slowly, but I was still in my spry, youthful 60s, and 3 years from cancer meds, so I managed.
The day after the train to the disappearing glacier, we took a gondola up in the direction of that restaurant. Three gondolas are required to go to that dizzy height, but we did not go to the restaurant, but with the help of the 2nd gondola got above 12,000 feet. I exited the contraption, walked down some steps, breathing deeply, but insufficiently. I almost passed out. Swiss friends and Francesca reacted well when I said I needed to go down one gondola level, and when we did, I recovered at a bit over 9000 feet. My inchoate reaction to this was to wonder at how feeble I evidently now was. Well … I still surf, so …
I do wonder why I reacted to the altitude so differently this time. I’m 4 or 5 years older, living under a heavy shadow, and heavily medicated to hold back the heaviness of the heavy shadow. I guess all that is sufficient to explain my wimpiness. But, here’s the odd thing …
So, jumping briefly a week into the future in Santa Margherita, during an afternoon’s cafe time we got to talking with a Swiss woman from Zürich. She is mostly retired, and spends every May and October in Santa Margherita (where I am presently writing). We mentioned Francesca is a university professor, and I am retired. She looked surprised. “You are retired?” “About 6 years ago.” WTF. Francesca said I was 70, three years off, but the lady was already in shock – no point sending her into a deeper shock. WTF!!!!!!! Not only am I of retirement age, but well beyond it. She wondered how that was possible. Evidently no 70 year olds in Switzerland look as young as I do (I believe there is a relevant anecdote in my first travel memoir on the topic of how the Swiss age). He surfs, Francesca helpfully suggested. She couldn’t get over it. [I must add, the Italian sun, a feeling of contentment, and sunglasses, take a decade or more off the old visage. Had that woman seen me dragging myself out of bed any morning (although why she should be in a position to witness such a thing is a mystery), well, she’d have little trouble believing that that baggy-eyed wreck of a human was retired; she might even wonder that I am still alive as she reels away in horror.]
I ought by rights to have been chuffed that my cherubic facade belied the haggard old fart beneath. But I was not chuffed. I weirdly found it disturbing, and I don’t know why. Last year, the night before our flight home from LHR, we dined with our London academic friends. They had learned of my death sentence some months earlier, and maybe expected to see some signs of deterioration. Instead, with a modicum of surprise, they told me I looked younger. Personally I attribute the evidently youthful demeanor to the pills I take daily that suppress testosterone manufacture in my glands. Francesca doesn’t think so, but I think she’s wrong. I think the drugs are trying to turn me into a prepubescent 10 year old, with cheeks to match. Ironically, 10 is my mental age, in my opinion. (I recently saw an online article suggesting that one way not to grow old, is not to grow up, remain immature. I’ve certainly mastered that art, but you know, there’s a cause and effect thing going on there, and, so, anyway.)
Also contributing to my discombobulation is the fact that the day I was told I had incurable stage 4 prostate cancer, I was also given a median (mean?) survivability: 2.5 years. I’m presently looking out a window at the coastline of the Italian Riviera. In 8 months I should be statistically dead. (Truth be told, I’d prefer statistically dead to actually dead.) Maybe, since my reaction to the ADT therapy is “upper echelon”, the statistics don’t apply to my situation, and maybe those statistics applied to the situation in which I did nothing … and they were gearing me up to accept their ultimate suggestion that I try ADT. That suggestion was ultimately a no-brainer. Die; or take pills that hold the cancer in check for some time, and make you look … I shouldn’t say that. I don’t want people … fudge. This whole fuchsia situation is so fuchsia uncomfortable.
Our Swiss family, on their last full day, dragged me up the river to a grassy spot where parasailers land, and, when not landing, frisbees can be thrown on the landing lawn. The father of this family, Macê, a doctor and good friend for decades, seemed intent of stress testing me with excessive exercise. (En route I communed with a boofy dog-faced beastie.
Anyway, the next morning we met them at the train station, said warm goodbyes, waved as their train left, and within an hour realized that without our friends, newbies to Chamonix, we didn’t have any reason to stay, and why not get the Mont Blanc Tunnel nightmare (which was a dream; see above) over sooner than later. And in any case, Chamonix was swarming with French tourists enjoying the 4 day weekend. Yikes. We cleaned up the Airbnb, booked a hotel in Italy, put the key back in the bike, and scooted. (well, that’s an exaggeration; it took an hour to figure out where the parking payment machines were that would give me the parking garage exit ticket) Two days later we booked into a 3 bedroom Airbnb in Santa Margherita, our bedroom window overlooking a park, the Mediterranean Sea, and many boats costing 3 times and more the value of our house in New Hampshire. Bliss.