Of Time and Distance: A Departing

[Corfe Castle]

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat on unmowed grass leaning against a stone wall. I was on the grounds of Corfe Castle in south Dorset. The mason who built my backrest had fitted the stones into their places over 1,000 years ago. There was still a strong sun in the west and the sky was about as blue as any sky can get. The cool breeze, however, forced me to zip up my fleece vest.

I was thinking of our journey that is nearly over.

Tonight, I’m sitting in front of a MacBook laptop in room 412 of the Doubletree Hotel in Southampton struggling to find the words to describe our travels.

I am thinking about our journey that is nearly over.

Tomorrow, at this time, I’ll be standing on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as it plows its way through the waters of the Atlantic ocean heading for New York City.

I’m pretty sure I will be thinking of our journey that will soon be over…July 1 to be precise…barring any major nautical distractions.

Five weeks ago, I sat at Gate 42 of the American Airlines terminal waiting to board our flight to Paris.

Where did the time go?

Paris~~We stayed in a tiny room of the Hotel Atlantis a few steps from the Church of St. Suplice. Days seemed to fly by as we walked through Pere Lachaise cemetery, saw a performance at the Paris Lido, visited the Louvre and stood in the sun at the front door of Notre Dame. We found a shady bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I felt like an artist as I opened my watercolor pencil set and made two drawings. I looked at my work…I’m no artist…just a traveler.

[Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris]

Onto…

Brussels~~Only a brief stop to catch a train to Bruges, which is to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful and melancholy cities I’ve ever visited. After a touristy canal boat ride, we sat in a small waterside bar. We conversed with the waitress. I asked her if she was married.

“No,” she said looking at the water. “No one wants to marry me.”

[Bruges, Belgium]

Back to…

Brussels~~This time we stayed for four days. We befriended a bartender named Aurora. She was from France and was completing an internship at the Marriott. We became Facebook friends. After one failed attempt to locate the Market Place, we found it down one cobblestone lane. Once in the Square, you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but ornate buildings highlighted in gold gilt. Outside the City Hall, I watched a middle-aged man get out of a car and straighten his tie. He was on his way to be married. I caught and held his gaze as he walked to the large oak doors. I gave him a two finger salute from my right eyebrow. He smiled, nodded and went inside…proud, happy, in love and full of hope.

Onto…

London~~A few hours after boarding the Eurostar, we got off the train at St. Pancras Station. Our hotel was the best one yet in our travels. It was just steps from the frenzy of Trafalgar Square. We visited the National Gallery and had dinner at the Sherlock Holmes pub near our hotel. Next evening, we got tickets to The Play That Went Wrong. Madcap misadventures and very funny.

[The Sherlock Holmes]

Onto…

Edinburgh~~Here we climbed the hill to see part of the Castle. In the evening we saw Wicked at a theater two doors away. Trust me, it was a great show for a far less ticket cost than New York City. At night, we took in a sort of haunted Edinburgh walking tour.

It was time to begin our driving part of the trip. Got a rental at the Hertz less than 100 yards from our hotel. It was a perky KIA with a GPS. After a short drive to Durham to visit the Cathedral (massive, awesome but NO PHOTOS ALLOWED) we spent the night in a small hotel.

Onto…

Litchfield~~Again another Cathedral city. This prize was one of the best of all the cathedrals I’ve visited in the UK.

 

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Onto…

Grassington~~We’re in the “Switzerland of England”, but the time had come to test my back and right foot on a footpath. Things didn’t feel right. Lower back pain and pain in my foot despite doses of Alleve. Our main goal for us was to explore the Yorkshire Dales, but all we managed was a few miles one day, a few the next and 3.5 miles on the third day. We never unpacked our hiking boots!

[Part of the Grassington walk]

Onto…

Gillingham, in North Dorset~~I felt like I had arrived home. Most of you know that I lived and taught in Dorset in the mid-1980’s. I walked the footpaths every weekend that I wasn’t visiting a cathedral. My housemate was a young teacher named Tim. Now, Tim is semi-retired and does some consulting work with schools. He, and his wife Jo have put us up several times in their spare apartment. They have three children. George is working in London. Thomas is going to university and 11 year-old Anna, who is being looked at by the Royal Ballet. She’s very good.

[Tim, Anna & Jo.]

We spent six nights at Tim’s house, helping him one evening to celebrate England’s win over Tunisia in the World Cup. We spent our days driving around Dorset and revisiting places I knew and loved. Of all the Counties in England, I feel that Dorset is the most beautiful. The land of Thomas Hardy.

After a lovely farewell dinner, it was

Onto…

Corfe Castle~~We stayed at an old manor house. The first night we drove a few miles to Wareham and had a dinner with another friend from the 1980’s. Marion was the art teacher when I first met her. A most remarkable woman.

Onto…

Southampton~~And this is where I now sit, writing, thinking and remembering. Where did those 33 years go when I was so young and healthy that 9 mile walks were mere afternoon strolls.

At the front end of a six-week holiday, it seemed like such a very long time. But it passed like two blinks of my itchy right eye.

I wonder. I wonder about the stone mason who built the wall I sat against yesterday? If he walked out of the past and sat beside me to watch the afternoon sun descend on south Dorset, would he have the same questions I’ve been asking?

Would he ask what happened to that 1,000 years? Where did it all go?

[All photos belong to me and are copyrighted]

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People Watching: Our Final Night In Paris

If you are a frequent reader of my posts, you will probably have noticed that I like to make up stories about people and things I don’t know anything about. The pleasure, for me as a blogger, is that I’m not bound in by only what I read or hear.  The type of posts I choose to write free me of mere facts.  I can invent an entire world.

True, many of my older blogs dealt with memories and dwelling in those memories. This post is something of both. I’ve tried to record, with a few meager photos and some scribbled notes, my thoughts and imaginings about watching the people on the streets of Paris, on a warm day in late May. This is a fraction of what I feel I could write about, but I’m a guy who needs limits.

We walk the streets. We sit in cafes and bistros and taverns. I sit and I think. I sit and imagine.

I watch the pretty young women riding bicycles, backs straight, skirts flowing and smiles on their faces. I wish they wore helmets. Some do, most don’t.

Along the narrow sidewalks, confident women with swishing skirts, breezy and full of thoughts of the future.  Behind them, are dignified older women with chunky necklaces. Some walk with friends…some are alone. I always wonder about an elderly woman alone. Is it by choice? Is she missing someone…a female partner or older husband?

I always wonder about these things.

I look at the young brash men, full of exuberance, full of expectations of a life yet to be lived. They are defiant and gentle from one second to the next. I observe no macho strutting. I see confidence and disregard for a danger that may lurk around the corner as they speed off on their scooters.

Children ride scooters, girls with pink helmets, boys with blue. Always a parent to wait at the corner. Always a mother to hold a hand. Always a father to proudly guide his son to the next corner and to their life beyond.

There are old grizzled men who look like they are keeping a secret. Standing on the corner, they smoke and think and they stare in the middle distance. Are they trying to forget? Trying to remember?

Next to them are the handsome middle-age men, comfortable in their middle years. Did they just leave the apartment of their mistress? Did they just say good-bye to their mistress? Was this their first afternoon with their mistress?

Some of the teenage girls seem wary, unsure of how to present themselves. Others are older than their years and know exactly how they look to the others boys, or girls, on those narrow streets.

There are more women, beautiful and lithe as models, chatting on their cellphones.

In the cafes, handsome men, handsome as Yves Montand, sip a mid-day white wine. Nearby are the waiters, black jackets and white aprons that extend to their ankles. They are ever vigilant and attentive to their patrons in need of a second espresso. Elsewhere in the bar are lonely men and lonely women, reading and holding onto their glass of rose or beer.

I feel like I’ve watched a thousand lives pass in front of me. Behind each face they hold a history of their life, secretly in their minds until a foreigner like me intrudes into their memories, inventing lives for them they surely never imagined.

It’s getting close to dusk. I hear sirens, so many sirens that I think there’s been another terrorist attack. The sirens. Is Putin in town?

The buzzing roar of the scooters, some small and innocent like a Vespa and others large…willing and able to wear the Harley crest.

At our last restaurant, I snapped a photo of a woman fanning herself (it was humid). It was one of those flirtatious Carmen-style fans.  She was totally absorbed in a conversation with her three friends and totally oblivious to the fact that an American, grey-haired and middle-aged (?) had stolen her privacy.

Some cultures believe that taking a photograph of someone, somehow robs them of their souls. Do I have her soul in my iPhone? In the cloud?

Yes, I do believe that I have stolen her soul. In years to come, I can scroll back and look at her. I possess her image. She and her friends will soon forget this evening. They will move into new lives and become different.

And when I remember that final evening in that Italian restaurant in Paris, all those people who stepped in front of my camera…I have their images frozen. And I can thaw them out anytime and play with new versions of a thousand life stories.

One or two of them may touch the truth.

 

[All photos are mine.]

 

 

The “Popcorn” Man

[The Street Vender. Photo is mine.]

At first I thought he was selling a popcorn necklace. He would walk up and down the rows of diners, whose tables (here in Paris) always face the streets. And he would peddle his “popcorn” necklaces to those at the tables that were closest to the sidewalk.

Yes, I thought he was selling “popcorn” necklaces. If I bought one, would I eat it for dessert as I walked home? He seemed to be at every restaurant on the Boulevard St. Germain.

The more I saw the man, the more I thought about his life. I lived in New York City for almost three decades so I thought I knew about street/restaurant venders. Mostly those individuals sold roses, or played Do-Wop, or simply held out an old Greek coffee cup that all the delis and hot dog guys sold coffee in.

They held out their empty cups.  I had no way to discern whether or not they were truly “homeless”, truly “veterans”, truly in need. I had to go on instinct. Was this just a pan-handler (and there are more and more on the streets of New York) or someone truly in need of two quarters or three dimes.

So, I thought more about the “popcorn” man as the days went by. People rarely bought anything from him. I would watch him work the rows of diners. Most paid him no attention.

I thought about him at night when I couldn’t sleep. I thought about him when I walked through the Louvre. I thought about him when I sat and contemplated Notre Dame.

What was his life like?  Did he go home after his rounds? Who gave him the necklaces to sell? Did he have a family? Did he have to sell his wares to feed his children? Was he a widower who went home alone to an empty flat? Was he a happy man? Did he hold dark secrets in his heart?  Was he even married?

But, the real question that kept looming in my mind was quite simple.

Was this man lonely? Was his only human contact with those who pretended he wasn’t even there or brushed him off as an annoyance to their Parisian dinner?

When I looked at him, I tried to work out his life…but, clearly, that was an impossible task.

Until tonight.

I made sure we were seated up front, near the sidewalk. I had my iPhone. I wanted to ask him his name. I wanted to take his photo. I wanted to make some kind of contact.

And, I wanted to buy the necklace of “popcorn”.  I would eat it, as dessert on the way back to the hotel.

I nearly gave up on finding him.  Then, there he was. Four tables away. Then three.

Finally, he stopped at our table. I indicated that I’d like to buy his merchandise. He smiled and sold me the necklace for 3 euros.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Bangladesh,” he replied.

Before he could walk away…before I could ask his name, I asked what it was that I just bought. From the first touch I knew it wasn’t popcorn.

[The Jasmine Necklace. The Photo is mine.]

“It’s Jasmine. Jasmine flowers,” he said as he walked off, moving on to another restaurant. Ten seconds after we had spoken, I lost him among the the pedestrians.

Now our room is filled with the scent of Jasmine.

I’d like to think (maybe it’ll help me sleep) that I made a quiet street vendor smile, even for a second, and fall asleep to the scent of Jasmine.

 

Street Scene In Paris

[Paris is a city of light and charm.]

It was our first day in the City of Light. Getting there involved subjecting ourselves to a subtle form of modern torture.  We were taking a “red-eye” from JFK to Paris.  We flew American Airlines because we’re addicted to air miles.  I won’t tell you how many miles I’ve accrued, but I will say that I earned every one of them.  My intent is not to dis American Airlines in this blog, but I can’t help but convey how long and endless and really awful the flight was. The food was fine, considering it was airline fare. But, for a trans-Atlantic flight, most everything was woefully below par.  The screens for the in-flight movie were not viewable unless one wanted to combine eye-strain with minor neck injuries.

At the end of the nearly seven hour flight, I thought I needed a massage on 22nd Street. My legs hurt, my back hurt and there was not enough leg room to raise a knee to tie a shoe lace or stretch a muscle in the lumbar region.

But, I digress.

After a two-hour taxi ride to our hotel near St. Sulpice, I was ready for one thing. A two-hour nap. After a three-hour nap, we pulled ourselves together and headed to see some places we loved in the Latin Quarter. I wanted to climb to the bell towers of Notre Dame, but the line (in a blazing sun) put me off.

I can’t take the heat and the direct sun.  I’m Irish.

So, we headed over to Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, which is a must stop for me.  I love the place.  But, I didn’t need another book to carry on our journey, so I opted for a beer instead.

And this is where the story begins.

It was a street full of foot traffic.

[It all took place on a busy street, just like this.]

We chose to sit facing the street just off the Rue St Michel. It’s busy and touristy.  As we sat in the shade, I noticed there was a homeless man sleeping on a foam pad surrounded by a few pieces of luggage.  I can’t say he was truly homeless, but I noticed all the signs.  We sat for forty minutes, reluctant to go back to the hotel and too tired to explore much more of the Latin Quarter.

I watched the man who slept.  He was in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

Another line of thought came to me.  I had heard of the deranged people who drove trucks into crowds and even went on stabbing rampaged.  I wondered about the SWAT patrols and where they were hiding out.  Then I spotted three well protected (but not heavily armed) police wander by.

A few minutes later, three more SWAT members (two female and one male) approached the sleeping guy on the sidewalk in front of me.

I was prepared for violence that would later be seen on YouTube.  They prodded the guy to determine if he was alive, dead, drunk, stoned or flying on some other drug.  I was prepared to not like what I was about to see.

Instead, the three officers, finally roused the man and got him to his feet.  I was sure they were going to cart him away…

But, they helped him walk to a spot by a street lamp.  Out of the way of the amount of foot traffic.  They dragged his belongings to his side.  He lay back and fell asleep.

The officers walked away.  No hassles.  No arrests.  No clubbing.

I wondered about the man’s life and what brought him to this busy sidewalk.  Then I felt grateful that he was in Paris, where no one used clubs or made him vanish into the bright light of the afternoon.

And all this happened within sight of this:

c

[Notre Dame Cathedral]

 

A Rare Journey

WinGreenWalk

[Windermere, England. Photo credit is mine]

On May 22, my wife and I will board an American Airlines flight to Paris.  This is not something new.  Every few years, we travel to Europe (mostly Paris) and end up with friends in Dorset, England.

Nothing so very earthshaking about this.  But, there is something different about this trip abroad.  On May 1, Mariam and I celebrated our 25th anniversary.  How she stayed with me for a quarter of a century is a mystery to me, but apparently not to her.  So, when we began planning our 2018 trip, we decided to do something different.  First of all, I’m taking her to Bruges, Belgium.  I spent a weekend there in the mid-1980’s and as I walked beside the canals, I was nearly in tears.  Why, I asked myself, couldn’t everyplace in the world be this beautiful?

The other new stop on our trip is Edinburgh.  I was there in the 1970’s, but I have few memories of the place.  I recall it being dark, somewhat dreary and quite chilly.

The rest of the trip will take us through Yorkshire (and hopefully some hiking, although my right foot and back are problematic).  We will end up in my favorite county, Dorset.  Visit friends, perhaps climb the Tor in Glastonbury, see a few English cathedrals, and find a few new paths to walk.

HikingBooks

[Helpful guidebooks.  Photo is mine.]

But, being our 25th, we decided to cough up a few extra quid and take the long way home.  On July 1, hopefully with my son waiting at the Hudson Pier, we will have completed a Trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2.

Don’t get me wrong here.  It’s a lot less expensive that you can quite imagine.  And, besides, how many times will we do this again?  We have never been on a cruise of any kind.  We deserve it, I think.  I’ll let you know when the bills start coming in.

Meanwhile, follow our trip on FB, my website, email or WordPress.

QueenMary2

[Photo credit: Google search and probably Cunard.]

 

 

 

Mystery of the Paris Photograph

[Photo source: unknown.]

I don’t know where it came from.  It was leaning against our brass lamp…since I don’t know when.

A year or two ago, I began to glean the Kodak slides and other photos that came into my possession after my father passed away in 2004.  There was a collection of letters and photos that took me months to sort out.

Until.

Until I noticed a black and white snap shot of a place in Paris.  On the reverse side of the snap was this handwritten note: “Paris, France, Jul. ’55”.

I have no memory of finding this photo in the belongings of my father or mother when they passed away…my mother in 1992 and my father in 2004.

But, where did this small snap shot come from?  It appeared, but never noticed, on our little table where we watch movies and TV shows.  It just showed up.  Could I have set it aside at some point?  If so, I don’t recall.

But, I can say that I know for sure that my mother or father never visited Paris in 1955.  That’s something I would have known about.  Or was there a secret visit to Paris by my parents when I was seven years old? I don’t think so.  I would have noticed.

So, who took this photo and wrote the location and date on the reverse side?  The Moulin Rouge,  at the foot of the hill that leads to Sacre Coeur, in the Montmartre district, where the showgirls have small Parisian breasts and horses gallop across the stage and the bottle of Champagne comes with the dinner and your bill is about $100 for the evening.

It’s a historical place and a huge tourist attraction.

But, who in my family took this photo?  Was it anybody in my family at all?

So, how did it end up leaning on the lamp of our dinner table?

Room # 8

There was an old man, kind and wise with age

And he read me just like a book and he never missed a page

And I loved him like my father and I loved him like my friend

And, I knew his time would shortly come but I did not know just when…

–Gram Parsons “In My Hour of Darkness”

We were driving a little slower than anyone else on that clear cool Friday afternoon.  It wasn’t because we were pulling the r-Pod, although that didn’t help matter very much…no, we had a destination.  I wanted to see where a man died and I didn’t want to miss a turn.

But, we did just that, in a manner.

“There it is,” said Mariam.  “The Joshua Tree Inn.”

It took me another ten minutes to find a way to make a u-turn and pull into the crescent-shaped drive way.  The Inn stood close by Highway 62.  We were on our way to the next stop in our journey, Twentynine Palms, California.

But, first I wanted to see where a man died.

The front door was locked.  I peered into the window. No one was behind the desk.  To my left, I saw an open gate.  I boldly walked into the courtyard expecting to be stopped by a clerk or manager.

OfficeJoshuaTreeInn

“Are you staying here?”

I was waiting for that question, but it never came.  There wasn’t anyone around.  I opened a door that had a sign stating that it should be kept locked at all times.  Inside was a charming sitting room.  Comfy chairs and a few tables.  In the courtyard, cacti grew.  A fire pit had a ring of chairs…waiting for a night-time fire and stories and legends and ghosts.

Yes, this Inn is reputed to be haunted.  I wouldn’t be staying the night so I wouldn’t know who or what spirit resides here.  I spotted room # 1.  I continued along the tiled walkway, reading the numbers as I went.

I stopped in front of Room # 8.  This was the place.  This was the room where the legendary Gram Parsons put enough morphine and alcohol into his system to kill three men.

FromGardenMemorialTo Room8

Keith Richards commented that Gram knew very well the dangers of mixing opiates and alcohol (Keith should know, they both hung out and got high in the late ’60’s).  Friends said he simply miscalculated the dosage and failed to realize the potency of the mix.

He also failed to wake up.  He died at the Hi-Desert Medical Center just after midnight, on September 19, 1973.

I mentioned that he was “legendary”, but he never achieved the fame and success of those he worked alongside.  He was one of the Byrds (not officially, however) and he hung out with the Rolling Stones when they were recording “Exile on Main Street” in the south of France.  He co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Chris Hillman).  He toured with Emmylou Harris (who continues to sing his songs when she tours).

He was “legendary” in the sense that he put country music into an entirely new realm.  His recording output was “minimal” according to most sources.

But, his spirit lives on in contemporary music.  Films have been made about him.  Books have been written.  Tributes are made.

He didn’t live long enough to see his career flourish…he seemed to be on the verge of some success when he and some friends headed to the Joshua Tree Inn that day in September of 1973.  He loved this desert and wanted to retreat here before starting a tour.  He was only 26 years old, missing his place in the “27 Club” by a year.

Gram Parsons had long declared his desire to be cremated at his death.  He had his wish…as a result of a bizarre and controversial effort on the part of his friends.  I won’t go into details except to say that his body was stolen from LAX before the remains could be flown back to New Orleans.  He was taken to a place in what is now Joshua Tree National Park, placed on a small hill, and his casket filled with three gallons of gasoline.

With the strike of a match his dream came true…so did the police.  You’ll have to check Wikipedia for the grisly details of the outcome of that well-meaning adventure.

I stood in the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn and looked at his memorial.  I thought of the early days of Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris…before they gated it off from fans.

GuitarMemorial

Here, items were left in bowls and jars.  I saw two violin bows.  I put a shiny penny into one of the dishes that was filled with coins.  A large slab in the shape of a guitar stood before Room #8 like a tombstone.  Four clay figures that stood about a foot tall, were placed across the courtyard.  In the scrubs behind the figures was a white stone that read: All Things Are Possible Through God.

4Figures

I thought about what little I knew of this man’s life.  The suicide of his father when Gram was twelve years old.  His little sister drinking herself to death.

I thought of his substance abuse…his doomed attempts to keep his demons at bay.

I said a quiet little “thank you” to Gram Parsons for the songs he left us.  I am grateful to my son-in-law, Bob Goldstein, who brought Parsons back into my life with the comment: “Oh, you would loves Gram Parsons if you like Townes Van Zandt”.  I’ve purchased “Grievous Angel” on iTunes and I intend to listen to his words tonight…under a nearly full moon and in the chilly desert air.

The air of night…about fourteen miles from the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons took his final breath before vanishing into the desert he loved.

Gram_Parsons

[Parsons in 1972. He had a year to live. Source: Wikipedia]

Her comb still lies beside my bed

And the sun comes up without her

It just doesn’t know she’s gone

Oh, but I remember everything she said.

–Gram Parsons “Brass Buttons”