November 12, 2006

My Own Private Paris

By Craig Cunningham © 2006

It could be because Paris was my final destination when I flew the British Airways flight from Phoenix to London, only to find out in the BA Business Class Lounge that the flight I was supposed to be on, TWA 800 from JFK to Paris, had fallen into the Atlantic Ocean. A cancelled business meeting in Rumford led to having a telecon rather than a meeting in Morristown, which led me to depart from my home in Phoenix instead of New York. Which meant that I was not dead as the people at American Express Travel as well as some in my company feared until I called my assistant after talking to my wife.

Maybe it was because our first born son was conceived in Paris on a cold winter night after a day at the Musee d'Orsay, looking at the Monet's and Degas' because that's all I knew I was supposed to look at and appreciate. Paris is supposed to be the most romantic city in the world, so that could be it as well, or maybe it was because Orly was the first place I'd ever landed outside of the U.S. and Canada. For whatever reason, Paris is the place that brings peace to my chaotic soul.

A business traveler's life sounds pretty glamorous, and I'm sure it could be if one was adventurous or a linguist or outgoing. I'm none of those things, so my travels normally are airports, hotels, room service, and remote controls. Many of my international trips are hops, meaning I'm in a different city or even country each night. A typical trip might be Paris on Monday, Madrid on Tuesday, Milan on Wednesday, Zurich on Thursday, then Brussels on Friday and the weekend, sneaking to Brugge before heading to Germany for a Monday meeting. Online poker has now replaced the endless stream of German soaps or Indian dance numbers or French Maury rip-offs or cricket matches, but mostly it's meetings and hotels. Mostly alone, eating alone, sleeping alone, sitting alone.

Paris is different for me. I've only been there once in the peak tourist days of summer, a three-day meeting near the Eiffel Tower during Bastille Day. I shined throughout the session as I probed market share gaps in Germany or service revenue slippage in Spain, bewildering the country managers and sales leaders with my insight on my first visit as VP of Marketing at this new company, three weeks into my tenure there. Most of the Yanks before me had been fine with, "You don't understand; we're different here in Europe."

I didn't really care too much about different, so I just plowed into the percentages and revenue deltas by product that brought light to the granularity of Europe, of the nuances of the non-answers to the questions behind the questions that I asked. You see, I figured out a secret that most Americans don't understand at all: Europe doesn't really exist. Belgium has nothing to do with England nor Spain nor Sweden when it comes to market demand, competitor strength, channels to market, or just about anything to be honest.

Paris around Bastille Day at the Eiffel Tower is a pretty intimidating place even for a seasoned traveler, as young Parisians and Algerians and gypsies reenact the French Revolution, only without the generals or stage director. The bayonets were replaced by bottle rockets, Roman candles standing in for canons. It was a whirling dervish of activity, one I had no problem eagerly avoiding. Visitors from all over the world flooded into Paris, and all I could think of was when I could escape these sweaty masses.

No, Paris for me has never been hot summer days of tourists and museum lines and rude Americans checking off their Fodor's list of sites to see. It's always been cold winter days, Christmas decorations, or autumn afternoons of wandering. In the summers, Parisians fatigue under the onslaught of Americans with their poor French and arrogance. In December, their patience and warmth have been restored, inversely proportional to the amount of waning sunshine on a typical overcast day. The people of Paris are hardly snotty or standoffish, and everyone is willing to give me a kind hint with what to order and where to go as I make no attempt to speak French nor claim to understand anything. It is these cold days that I love, with my heavy London Fog trench coat tied tightly by my black-gloved hands, my wool scarf wrapped around my neck and face. A black toboggan is pulled onto my head if the chill is too much or the rain starts to fall, which it often does.

While most people look for new and interesting places to go when they travel, I return to the familiar. Coming again and again over the years to the same places in a city allows me to pretend I'm somewhere between tourist and resident, a deliberate wanderer if you will. I take the Metro to one of the Louvre stops then stroll to Angelina's, the home of chocolate decadence. Honey and I came here to meet a dear friend of her parents, Mrs. Calder, as her husband was doing time at the mother ship of Michelin from his job at the American headquarters in Greenville. I returned a couple years after our first visit to gather all the supplies necessary to replicate the Angelina's experience for Honey: teapot, cups and saucers, and Angelina's hot chocolate mix. To come back each trip and sit facing the street, sipping hot chocolate and nibbling a sandwich, brings Honey's red cheeks and Rudolph-like nose on that first blustery afternoon. To walk past the flower shop with the rose petals scattered on the ground makes me long for her even more.

So many places are familiar now: the bridge from Notre Dame Cathedral, the pet shops down from the small hotel that burned three people alive, the ruins still smoldering the on the morning I happened upon it. A secret retreat for me is the Jardin du Luxembourg where I often sit for an afternoon after walking past the Pantheon. I've sat there for hours on end, spying on the goings-on of lovers and children and dogs and the elegant veteran with his wife. Up from there is the Hotel des Grands Hommes (a fitting place of lodging for me, not necessarily the smallest fellow), and my stroll up the big hilly street to my old hotel takes me past all the university students smoking and drinking their dreadful coffee at the small cafes fairly common in the Latin District. If I find myself for some reason on the Champs Elysees, a quick glance at the cobalt facade of the Lido takes me back to our first trip there, this upscale version of the Moulin Rouge scandalous and erotic enough for the two of us. Our extravagant night of being fancy and romantic in Paris that winter evening started at dinner and a walk along the Seine before riding the Metro and strolling toward this atypical destination for two young Presbyterians from the South via Phoenix. Ice skating on a tiny rink juxtaposed topless beauties and elephants, and I was bewildered by it all while holding Honey close to me.

Of all these special places, Paris for me is ultimately gyro et frites. Whenever I'm there, I steer clear of the great restaurants, although clients or employers pay for most any meal I could have. No, when I am in Paris, I hop on the Metro, make my way to St. Michel, emerge in the milky blue light of an overcast winter day or the unique French night sky, walk until I pass the fancy cafe (that may be famous, I'm not sure) within a stone's throw of the Seine, hang a left at the bookstore with the plastic strips hanging around outdoor stalls with cramped stacks of children's books and gardening tomes on the first floor. Down the short street and there we are, my solace, my own little Paris. The big crepe and pastry store stands guard at the end of the Y, gyro shops lining the street to my right and Greek seafood and kabob restaurants to my left. I avoid the hawkers and head right, deliberately making one pass past all of the gyro options before settling on the grand prize winner for the day.

You see, I've spent over $6,000 to fly business class and eventually fork over 35 francs (now 7 euros) for my gyro avec rouge sauce et frites and Coca-Cola Light. There is no methodology to select the dozen candidates to take my funny money; I just go with my gut. I place my order, pointedly repeating the request for rouge sauce, no tomatoes. The proprietor grabs the metal funneled lamb slice catcher in his left hand with the sharp blade in his right, his cuts swift and rhythmic as the thin pieces of lamb fall onto the metal tray. Just enough then gets stuffed into the pita bread, the pita bread that has been smeared with the special red spread with a kick that replaces the yucky white cucumber sauce treasured throughout the world. Onion and lettuce are tossed in, then the piping hot fries lightly salted and straight from the deep fryer are smashed right into the pita contraption before being handed over to me with the French Diet Coke.

You either walk away from the restaurant to eat this or sit there in the confined quarters of the shotgun joint, and I normally prefer to sit there. Walking with the gyro in one hand and Coca-Cola Light in the other is high risk for a trained grazer, with the potential of dropped fries as the worst case scenario among common walking-and-eating predicaments, so I normally just sit down and eat after unraveling all my articles of winterwear. After a quiet, calm meal, if I can handle it, I then wander to another gyro place out of eyesight from the first and repeat the ordering-and-eating process. I don't compare the two meals, as the independent owners have somehow been schooled in gyro-dom by the common Greek blood derived from Heracles or the ancestors of Onassis. They all taste the same up and down the street, the ideal alternative to the loathed burger found more and more throughout Paris.

My belly adequately stuffed, accompanied by greasy hands and salted lips, I stumble into the street to make my way back to some familiar walk that I've taken so many times to wind down from my decadent experience. This Paris where I can't remember the names of any streets, where I can't remember how to find the jam shop or how to get anywhere without a map and can't speak to anyone in their native tongue; this is my Paris. It's where I can walk invisible in my own mind yet stick out like the ugly American I am, somehow humored by these Parisians who overlook my clumsiness on a random cold winter's day in a year like any other year. And for gyro et frites down from St. Michel, I'd go out of my way to accidentally spend the night in Paris, all so that I could close my eyes and imagine holding my wife's hand or seeing her bright pink cheeks on that first cold winter's day, all those memories racing as the steaming lamb and fries reach my lips.

Craig Cunningham is a married father of three boys living in the suburbs of Atlanta. His career often takes him throughout Asia and Europe and he's lived in New Jersey, Detroit, and Phoenix, but there remains in him remnants of the small town in Mississippi where he was raised.

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