Friday, November 21, 2008

The plane lands; the Captain doesn't

I had resisted being BFF---Back From France.

It took me two days to acknowledge I wasn't waking up in the Napoleon hotel anymore, that I would not see the Arc De Triomphe to the right upon leaving my residence each morning, nor would I hear “Bon jour, Monsieur!” from the friendly bellhop with the “Stinky Armpit Championship” ribbon pinned to the lapel of his jacket. I was home, in Inwood, tactfully referred to by real estate agents as “Upstate New York.”

Inwood, where three parking garages, a gas station, a car wash, auto parts stores, a couple of restaurants and scattered bodegas bustle to my north and whose streets are almost completely deserted at night except for those walking to and from the subway or who find themselves in need of chicken claws from the 24-hour Fine Fare or a live pigeon from the store on 10th Avenue. Fort Tryon park nearby, yes, and one must be grateful for the trees, but you cannot munch “rocket salad” in this park, nor can you walk its wooded paths without being propositioned by Joe Buck minus the hat, fringe and accent.

I grew up with a similar collection of trees in Westchester, anyhow, cut off from the world except for the deer and squirrels, and was similarly removed from civilization. Everything interesting in Manhattan---theatre, coffee shops, cinema, art, live music, diversity---begins below 96th Street. I am here, nudging the Bronx, squeezed like the last blop of toothpaste.

But Paris! Civilization 1,000,000 times multiplied. I’d gorged and guzzled her over three days, rolling as a dog rolls in dirt, covering myself, getting her on my face and between my toes, screaming “Sacre bleu!” and “Zut alors!” with each roll, and stuffing my pockets with snails, French attitude, a lock of hair from Quasimodo, a vial of Seine, a photo of a guillotine and an eclair before my wife and I left the country.

In three days, we did the Louvre, Muse d'orsay, a Seine cruise, the top of the Arc, the stroll down the Champs Elysses, the Metro, the Tour de Montparnasse.

Determined to learn the language of my new girlfriend quickly back home, I dialed my Satellite Radio to NPR in French and let it ride all day.

Two days later, I still didn't understand what the men and women on the radio were saying.

I remembered, though, how long it took me to learn the language of the chords of the Great American Songbook in the early 90s as a non-reading musician, how I had to pick out every note of every chord of Bobby Short's version of "I've Got A Crush On You." by ear. Today, I hear and speak that language fluently as if I've always known it. Some day it will be the same with French. Not today, not tomorrow.

I obtained recordings of the work of the following French musicians:

Charles Aznavour
Jacques Brel
Sylvie Vartan
Daniel Colin
Jacqueline Francois
Maurice Chevalier
Josephine Baker
Yves Montand

...and let their quick vibratos, accordions and drama wash over me as I stood doing the dishes.

Wednesday, I went solo to "The Wild Child", a 1970 film by Francois Truffaut, at the Film Forum.

In the movie, Wild Child Victor's teacher attempts to teach him to speak, and as such I also learned, from watching, the meaning of lait---milk---and clé---key.

Finally, on my 4th day back in New York, I went for a run in the freezing cold, running for my life as if chased or chasing, breathed deeply, and felt the sorrow of goodbye.

Then I was able to face being home at last.

And I must say it was nice to exchange the following with the customs man at Kennedy Airport Sunday night:

"How y'doin'."
"How y'doin'."

It is possible for a parent to love two or more children, and it is possible to love Paris without being disloyal to Manhattan.

I shall see my girl again in May---a long 6 months away.

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