Action at the Gare Saint-Lazare

There was something happening outside. I heard it in the station. A demonstration, or a march maybe, something about the economic crisis. People were in the doorway watching. I squeezed through with my backpack and out into the square towards the Metro.

Outside I saw women moving quickly, angry faces, and  they were yelling and you could hear their feet moving, and then the thud of a blow, a yelp, and laughter. Not a demonstration. It was a brawl.

These Arab women were getting after this Asian woman. They swung their purses. The blows went thud, thud, thud. The woman screamed. She sounded like a little kid told No. Each scream brought more laughter.

A couple dozen African men sat on the edge of the fountain . They were laughing at these Arab women beating the holy hell out of this Asian woman. There were seven or eight of them, the Arabs. They had the victim surrounded. She faked one way, then put her head down and ran another. Several Arabs caught her. They held her for the Arabs with the purses. They held her head up so the purses hit her face. Blood was running red down her head.

More people gathered. Looking, and looking back. White people, French, with worried looks on their faces. Minds behind faces asking Am I next? And then How do I avoid being next. The answer, simply: walk away. Or, more daringly, watch. Become the audience. Do not, whatever you do, take part. Do not try to stop this. It’s like getting between dogs.

I walked downstairs into the Metro. It was still going on, but I had a meeting to get to. I took the 3 down to Opera and then switched to the 7 to Censier-Daubenton. The scene reverberated in my head. The screaming. The blood running red down her head. You don’t see such things in the States. Or maybe you do. Maybe I just hang out in too many white-bread neighborhoods…


Paris makes for a hell of a first week, especially when your French sucks as badly as mine does. You’re jetlagged. Your senses are overwhelmed. It’s a coaster: ecstasy to narcolepsy.

The language things hits me especially hard. In France it’s tough for me to marshall the jangly, I don’t-give-a-fuck confidence I’m accustomed to wielding. Every time someone speaks to me, it’s a blow. Statements are jabs. Questions are the big hooks, bam, bam, bam as I grope my brain for one word of the speaker’s phrase that I might recognize and thus begin the process of divining the meaning of the entire thing – by which point of course the questioner has moved on to five other questions, and is looking at me like I must be a complete moron.

I needed a break from Paris, and with my new apartment not being available until this Friday, a nice three day window opened up. At first I was headed for Brussels, but I changed my mind. Brussels is a big city, and what I really needed was a few days away from big cities. The finger on the map and the cheap train tickets both pointed to Rouen, the capital of Normandy, a good 80 miles down the Seine from Paris.

Rouen is a small city, and I like small cities, especially small European cities. There is a well-preserved/restored center with a fabulous cathedral at its heart. There is a river to walk along, and woods in the hills above the river to stroll through. You can hear gulls, and know that the sea isn’t far. There are students all over the place, and the general vibe of the city is youthful. There is an art museum with a narrow focus that includes stuff I like. Something interesting happened here, something I knew nothing about and have greatly enjoyed studying. My hotel is a few blocks from the center and is good to work in and on breaks I can walk past the clock tower to the old market to buy a sandwich and some cidre. There is a hill to walk up and overlook the city. It’s Normandy, apple country, and I’ve been downing my share of calvados in the evenings. There are many chill cafes and one two-star Michelin restaurant, where I had an incredible six-course meal on my birthday.

Three days is about as much as you can stand as a traveller in a city like Rouen. You know every street, and you’ve been to all the good cafes, and and people start looking at you like There goes that asshole in the jacket and the beanie again, what’s his problem, doesn’t he know that most tourists spend a night and bail?

Tomorrow I return to Paris to move into my new apartment and get ready for the weekend.

Sorry friends, no photos yet

I haven’t looked at Paris enough yet. Maybe next week.

You’ve worked well all morning, and it’s past noon, and you’ve been hungry long enough. So you go for a walk. It’s raining, and you head into the first bistrot you see with good things written on its menu. There’s nobody else in yet. The waiter puts you in the corner next to the window. You watch everyone come in and take off their hats & coats and shake hands with the waiter and argue over the carte and pat their bellies and and make little jokes and get served wine and eat big plates of food and laugh like madmen. You eat a big meal. You drink a bottle of wine. You eat dessert. You take coffee. When you finally waddle out the door the rain is gone and sun is out. You walk home full and everything is clean from the rain and shines in the sun. The street, the trees, the people. There is the sense of utter contentment, and yet – and this is the real trip, because they’re not usually bed buddies – there is also the feeling that anything is possible.

This is why I come to Paris.

– JO, Hotel Villa Modigliani, 6ème


The First 72 Hours

The RER is the way to get into Paris from CDG – it costs only $10 and is just as fast as a taxi. On the train it is definitely France – the way people dress, sit, address each other, the little indulgences like the guy who leans against the door of train smoking until the horn sounds, then coolly tosses the (still burning) cig on the platform as the doors are closing. The train makes its suburban stops. More people get on, a buzz builds in the carriage. Then a turn and there it is: Sacre Couer bright white, cartoonishly arabesque against a burning dusk sky – it is Paris at last.

Emerging from Paris’s traintrack bowels at the Jardin Luxembourg to, what is that, music? Yes. A brass ensemble, blowing Basic Band Blues. Tourists gawk, students and businessmen push past. The Jardin closed for the evening, the sky afire, the smell of a thousand dinners. I can’t find a free taxi, but it’s ok – my hotel is close enough to walk.

First morning in Paris. Walking down the Blvd Raspail toward the Parc Montsouris and finally to my 10:30 meeting. Paris, but no longer the aimless stroll of the tourist. Somewhere to be. A meeting. Part of the crowd instead of pushing against it.

Celebrating finding an apartment with a Grec Frites in the Luxembourg. The trees are pushing buds. Paris is pouring out of its classrooms and offices to lazy in the sun. I realize having watched the weather forecast for the past few weeks that winter has just broken today, and it is spring, but will it be false or will it stick? I grew up in California, where there is no real Spring, and no threat of April showers… Seeing those delicate March buds on trees, I understand now April is the cruelest month.

Île de la Cité. Here is where they made their stand. Where little red Genevieve staved off the big bad Atilla wolf. I’ve read the romanticized version and it is good enough; I suspect the reality had more to do with the logistical nightmare of storming an island. Plenty of lower hanging fruit further up the Seine, non? Nonetheless, here is where it happened, and it is why a world capital stands here today.

Île Saint-Louis. Always quiet, even on the most tourist-busy Summer Sunday. Hiding from the wind on the quais along the west end, sitting in a patch of Spring sun, looking at Notre Dame. Wondering if these trees are horse chestnuts. I have read entirely too much about Paris. I wish there was another Paris, a virgin Paris with all of the same charms only different, one that nobody has written a word about. Not really, but it’s easy to dream when you’re spending a morning idling in Paris, and your belly is empty, and your wallet has something in it, and you know where you will eat lunch.

My first big meal: Pied au Porc at the Brasserie Lipp. Cliche? You bet. Not the best food, not even close. But you read enough Hemingway as a kid, you have to come to these places. You get potato salad and a big beer to ride alongside. The neighbor starts chatting you up – her English is not the best, but it kicks the hell out of my horrid French. She’s the wife of a PGA Tour golfer, she lives in Geneva, she is visiting Paris too… her daughter goes to school at UC Berkeley. She loves America. I tell her I love France, and why. In one of a thousand brasseries in Paris, two complete strangers toast each others countries and wish each other the best of luck in life. Can the world be so bad after all?

A Saturday morning cafe, un noisette a croissant on the terrace, my laptop, ideas dripping from my head. I’d let them spill on the ground, but they might splash my neighbor, so I tap them out instead. This would never fly in the States:  Four tables packed into a space for one. Service is casual, simple, yet formal – you don’t have to go in and stand in line and shout an order and pick up your coffee and all of that nonsense. You sit, you breathe, you look and see a morning market setting up in the Place Fernand Mourlot, your waiter comes to take your order, you bust out the laptop and write, your espresso comes and as it hits you, you write more. You nibble. You tap. You watch people posing and people watching people. You stay as long as you’d like. And when you’re ready? You leave your four euro plus one for a tip and you go on down the street, nose wide open, eager for the next surprise.

A little too early in Paris

Is it really 3AM?

Oui, it is.

Hooray jet lag. Night is time to twitch. Daylight is a rough shock to the body which is accustomed to being in the midst of Operation Shutdown. I’ll have to be patient with my confused systems. I’ll have to remember that 100 years ago, the journey I just made in a casual half-day was still the journey of a lifetime. Considering the distance-disconnect, I suppose it’s amazing that switching continents only requires a brief reboot of the circadian rythyms.

Week Two

Palo Alto
Soft mornings waking & working & thinking & eating & playing at Jesse and Kristin’s house in Palo Alto. The man has two redwoods growing in his beautiful backyard and two babies growing in his beautiful wife. Quiet morning cappuccinos at a real Italian cafe on University Ave. Beers with the grad students under the arcade on the Stanford campus. Popping open The Prisoner on a Friday night, reading the winemaker’s story while drinking his wine. Biking to Mollie Stones for chicken thighs and asparagus and pork ribs and beer and good eggs because Jon’s an egg snob. Sherri’s good lemons go in everything. First strawberries of the spring at the Saturday farmer’s market. An old-skool barber shop. Riding to University Ave for cigars, don’t take Alma because the other side of tracks ain’t bike friendly. Grilling and cigars in Jess’s backyard. Devouring Kristin’s croissants with Pierson’s chocolate & those Oxnard strawberries and a bowlful of whipped cream.

The Peninsula
Pollo asado burrito y una cerveza in the sun at La Cumbre Taqueria. Cherry danish and a cappucino on the patio at the Woodside Bakery, placing myself in the mind of the 19 year old (me, 13 years ago) out there on a break after the morning slam. Half Moon Bay and Pillar Point from King’s Mountain. The clean smell of fog streaming up the valley below Fisher Investments, and how this smell identifies this particular place. Montara on a sleepy Monday, sunshine on Sunshine Valley Road. Super burrito at Tres Amigos. A few dozen oystahs at Hog Island with stout in our eyes and the Bay Bridge in our glasses. Dim sum hopping in Chinatown. A manhattan at Vesuvio, a romp through City Lights. The Bay Area as food as the Bay Area.

The Drive
Windmills at Altamont, gleaming snow crowns on the High Sierras from Stockton, the upper San Joajuin Valley. A baby is born. Crunching through snow to those old boulders in Strawberry. Sichuan hot-pot at my Shanghainese friend’s house, and my boy got his real estate license. Sunup over the foothills in the Sacramento Valley is like a light switch being flipped, and all the rows of cherry trees with their white blossoms shining in the morning light. The Trinities, Lassen, Shasta towering over the top of the state. California won’t end. Over the Siskyous and into Ashland. The Klamath River and trying to guess how it fed to the Ocean (my guess was the Columbia via the Snake via the Rogue, which I was also wrong about because the Rogue forms its own watershed as well) but finding out later that the Klamath is its own watershed. The Umpqua Valley, The Willamette Valley, The Columbia Valley. A burger and fries at Burger Bar. Olympia, Tacoma, over the bridge and on to Port Orchard, Kitsap Penninsula, Puget Sound, Washington, USA.

Week One

San Diego to Templeton: The 5 to 405 to the 5 to the 46. Laura Wineteer wears her winter coat in the a wine shop where she works, it’s a cavernous teak-reeking room with banker’s desks and they have $500 bottles of Shafer racked next to simple California zins. The moon was conjoined with Venus like a Turkish Flag in the night sky. The Grapevine, what a thing to photograph but where would you pull off? Long flat four-lane highways, cruise controlled at 85. When The Saints Go Marching In on my trumpet.

Templeton: Up at 6:30 every morning to work. Joe makes my 8AM cappucino at JoeBella next door. Jun flies home from China. Winemakers blending Bourdeaux with Rhone with California on the Paso wine trail. Dinners from the sea with moules and clams and oysters and live prawns from Pier 46, the shells piling up in big bowls on the table. Taking photos of the old grain elevator, a grey tower rising from the Salinas Valley sands, using it in a poem. The gnarled Ichabod Crane oaks of the Templeton Gap. Happy hour at the wine bar and the divorcee trying to get Sy to drink up because women think he’s cute and want to squeeze his Chinese cheeks.

SLO: SLO morning at Big Sky. Out Orcutt to the Edna Valley where gangs of workers prune the winter vines. Oxalis blooming on the hills and in amid the vines. Reading Nietschze & considering the Will To Power versus the Will to Live while watching the locals popping in to say Hi at Andreni Cafe in Arroyo Grande. Mr. Wolff with “nothing new until April” but it’s ok because I haven’t tried last year’s yet and they’re just as good and Burgundian as ever. Decaf Americano and the back patio at Linnea’s.

Morro Bay: that old lava neck, the great igneous pebble Morro Rock studs the bay. A kayaker riding the rush of the tide into the harbor. How the northern wind cuts cold and Morro Bay feels like the first northern coastal town as opposed to Pismo with is a SoCal beach town. The green hills like Ireland above the roiling Pacific. Mike’s office in a converted beach house reminding me of our old office in Solana Beach. And where’s Jack Lalanne?

Big Sur: Coming over the 46, the green dream of Ireland 10 miles down to the coast and the slate sea. Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas. Hearst Castle and how Steinbeck portrayed the man, the central question: Can a man that rich be happy or does amassing that much wealth necessarily corrupt the soul? Up Sur, grey rains and twisting turns and the sea so far below that you’d have time to think about it if you fell over. So many surprises along the way like little creeks and coves and cliffs and green valleys. The Henry Miller library where I ate my chicken lunch and nothing happened. Rushing, distracted, a bad traveller today. 10 bucks to drive around The Monterey Peninsula and not really see it, gotta go back someday. Gobbling clam chowder while plink-plonking across the Fisherman’s Wharf dock decking.

Palo Alto this morning. Four days in the bay and all the burritos a boy can eat. I can hardly wait…