The fashionable darkness of Paris

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The world is in fragments. Pieces of meaning scattered here and there. So much nonsense in the main. We pick up a single spark of meaning and try to connect it with the larger blaze. Sometimes we hold a stray ember that is quickly snuffed out. And the darkness is all.

These feelings likely stem from arriving in Paris today. In our hotel room, we cannot manage to turn on a single light. Many switches. None turn on a light. Is this a new thing in Paris – a fashionable darkness? The concierge pops up with our luggage. He explains that putting the hotel key card in a slot on the wall produces power throughout the room. Suddenly, there is light.

Watching television in the hotel room is an adventure. Robyn listens for ten minutes. “I understood the words “Ebola” and “Facebook,” she announces. “And that’s it.” But she studied Spanish. The burden of understanding is mine. After two years of high school and one year of college French classes, it’s clear to me that the French newscaster has just announced that using Facebook will give you Ebola. Or something.

I knew we were in trouble before we arrived. That’s why I picked up a French phrase book back at Dulles. It proved chuck full of useful expressions ranging from the mundane to the catastrophic. On a egare mes baggages. “My luggage is missing.” Also, by the way: On m’a agresse’. “I’ve been mugged.”

There’s the helpful request: Il me faut une ampoule. “I need a light bulb.” And the aggressively inappropriate: Est-ce que je peux allumer un feu ici? “Can I light a fire here?”

I imagine asking Frenchmen everywhere I go in Paris: Can I light a fire here? Robyn giggles along before she catches herself. Then she rolls her eyes. “Why wait until we get to Paris to become ugly Americans?” I ask.

This trip was supposed to be different from the one I took with my high school French class as a gangly 16-year-old boy from the outskirts of civilization – a few miles down the highway from rustic Salisbury, North Carolina. (A town that boasts nearly as many church steeples as stop lights.) I was going to be the mature traveller, steeping myself in French culture. Finally redeeming myself for that pimply outing decades ago when I was too young to absorb the elegant manners and culture of Paris. Oh well.

C’est la vie.

The fashionable darkness of Paris

Finding your way home

imagesI’ve been trying to forget high school for the last 30 years.

Locked in my own shyness, so terribly self-aware of every fault and inadequacy, I barely poked my head out of a book long enough to notice what was happening for four years. If I could have sped up the time, I would have. I knew my future was golden and beautiful, and this was just a place to suffer through to get to that promised land. But my classmates from West Rowan High School Class of 1983 are gathering today to remember, recall and rejoice at a reunion in Salisbury, North Carolina. At first, I wondered to myself. What can they possibly be thinking?

The few shiny, happy people on top of the social totem pole who ran for touchdowns and partied hard through those years might have something to celebrate. Those were the days, they might say. But I had nothing to offer to that conversation. Then I thought a little harder about it.

I did nearly kill everyone in the car during Driver’s Education class once. We were on a skinny strip of state highway in the middle of nowhere when the instructor asked me to do a three-point turn. I was a bit nervous. We had practiced this sort of thing back in the parking lot with cones, but this was the first real road test of my three-point turning abilities. I began backing up the car into position. A deep gulley stretched down to our right. Not straight down. It was a long and rolling green hill that seemed to have no end. There was a tense moment when the car seemed to want to keep backing right down the gulley. The back wheels may or may not have dangled over the edge of this gulley. Who’s to say this many years later? And then the instructor hit the dummy brake so hard the car shuddered to a stop. My classmates in the back seat had plenty to say about it. Our instructor hit them with an icy stare that shut them up. He had a gravitas that compelled fear. It was unclear what he could do to you, but you never wanted to find out. I completed the three-point turn and we drove back to school in verdant Mt. Ulla (a place so inconsequential it exists more as a postal address than anything else.) A few of my classmates kissed the ground on getting out of the car. I wanted to throw up.

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Finding your way home