Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stop and smell the pipe smoke.

The strangest things can happen sometimes, if you are willing to let them.

In the space of time that it takes to see the dentist, or see a movie, or to see a friend for a cup of coffee, I was in fact doing none of these things yesterday. The air was bright and cool in-between the buildings, and my feet irresponsibly led me from one side of the narrow street to the other, dipping into blues and greys. I had to dodge a few people, but mainly my eyes were busy scanning and recording every angle and dip and hue, every golden wall that struck it rich in the late sun. After a while it became arduous to remember it all, so I tried to capture my found pleasures with a cheap pen and scrap paper. No luck. Note to self: buy a camera or art supplies. Or both.

Sometimes, within a such a space of time - separate somehow from the before and after - the heightened senses can pick up on something extraordinary that would, on any other day, slip through the ordinary cracks in the sidewalk. Tastes, sounds - especially smells.

Pipe smoke, for instance. It wasn't quite a week ago, when I found myself walking beside a portly gentleman with an impressive wonder of carved wood gracefully dipping in front of his equally-impressive wonder of a chin. I had to shake off my little fancy to follow him. That day - every minute pressed and squeezed for optimal performance - did not allow me to follow the delicious odour which trailed behind him in thin wisps.

Yesterday, however.

Yesterday, I had afforded myself the luxury of no particular aim for a couple of hours, and with all my senses acutely reminding me of this achingly beautiful world I live in, there and then I formed the conviction that I would like very much to visit a certain museum in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, I was not sure of its location. It was precisely at this opportune moment of reflexion that I caught a whiff of it again.

Ceci was unmistakably une pipe.

I think if I hadn't been brought around, partaking of a repeated pleasure, the first pipe probably would have faded, been forgotten. But here it was again, in living colour, and enriching all the world around me with wonderment. The two experiences stood towering in my memory, like solid pillars of cloud. I simply had to follow. Parallel to my singular delight at this second chance, another fanciful thought flitted through my mind. Would these delicious threads pull me to my desired destination? In a moment, it seemed inevitable.

Now, please understand that I did not want to alarm this poor gentleman (who was not portly, by the way, nor did he have a chin that is worth writing about, but was a rather ordinary-looking person), but I do not believe that he suspected my odd proceedings, for he continued to whistle and puff through his sunny walk as blissfully unaware as any stalker could hope for.

With a start, I came to my senses - the sensible ones, that is. Following complete strangers around, and in broad daylight? I scolded myself for indulging in such irrational behaviour, and took my gaze off of the back of my poor Pied Piper's head. Several brisk steps later, I had brushed past and was heading, with businesslike resolve, for the Musee Cognacq-Jay before it closed. The spell was broken.

Exactly fifteen slow minutes later (I checked my watch), I stood fuming at the maze of dead ends, narrow passageways, and badly-positioned tourism signs that make up the 4th arrondissement. The wind had changed, and my sails hung limp. Dragging my feet, I turned an unfamiliar corner- only to pick up the scent of a familiar ghost. There he was, strolling in front of me as always, whistling and smoking by turns. He ducked left into a new street. What did I have to lose? Around the bend, he was squinting at a small stone plaque, pipe in hand. I approached - nonchalantly, of course- and read with great surprise the name of my long hoped-for harbor. The very doorstep. Though he could not say the same.

"Excusez- moi, est-ce que vous connaissez ou se trouve le Musee Picasso? Je ne suis pas de Paris."

I was half-surprised that this phantom - angel?- had removed its mouthpiece and was somehow addressing me directly in a very warm, human voice. It was certainly French - though "not from Paris," by its own cheerful admission. Did I know where to find the Picasso museum. Could I point it out to him. Flustered and shy from the sheer irony of it all, I finally offered the use of the map in my bag. * A few brief, cordial exchanges later, the smoldering herald was on its way, leaving a whisper of fragrant thanks behind.

Merci, indeed.

* Yes, I did know that I had a map. But what would I write about if I always relied on that?

Friday, October 05, 2007

A wing and a prayer

One of our main philosophies in our life together is that we're called on to take a ride on a wing and a prayer from time to time. This is the principle of lifelong fling: operating on spontaneity and a heavy dose of the grace of God, and letting the potent combination take us where it will.

So, rewind the tape about a week and half.

-Ab, did you see that JF has a few train tickets that he can't use?
-Yeah, I thought about it....we probably have flexible enough schedules.
-I wonder how many tickets there are...
-I think it's just for one person.
-And another set of tickets would be too pricey. I guess...
-I really want to use those tickets.
-You yourself? (understood: without me?!)
-Well, yeah.

But...but...what? How can you argue with a husband who clearly loves adventure, happens upon windfall means for a trip, and all but promises to bring back wine from Bordeaux? After struggling a while with the fact that fate had not sent me an invitation to the same party, I finally waved the white flag of surrender, and Karl was the proud owner of train tickets from Paris-Nice, Nice-Bordeaux, and Bordeaux-Paris.

He initially conceived of this trip as streamlined bike camping on a road bike: stuffing his panniers with bivouac, cheese, and bread, while visions of toe clips danced in his head. As the departure date approached, however, frantic searches for a decent ride turned up little fruit. The good 'ol townie - clunky racks, lights, and heavy pedals & all - would have to do. At least for this time around. One borrowed Thermarest, a cheap tarp and set of tent stakes, some layers of clothing, and a first aid kit rounded out the supplies, and the man was ready for his 5-day escapade.

Excerpts from a wife's text message archive...

Day 1

Woo-hoo! Both the bike and I made it on the train. Pretty smooth. Thanks for the food. Aix-en-Provence looks pretty cool. This energy drink I bought is nasty. Word.

Anyway, pretty wet today. Bike works ok. Bag on rack not super graceful. Nice coffee shop guy gave directions to camping near Antibes. He said the way to Italy wasn't that good. Not sure I believe him on that point. Regardless I'll go up into the hills and a little bit further east. Cool picture I took of the moon rising over a storm behind the city. Word.

Day 2

Yeah, it's sunny in Beaulieu-sur-mer. It wasn't in Nice until about 19h, but really cool there. I camped closer to Monaco between a huge cliff, a sandwich shop, and the water. Now maybe Italy and camp in the same place, or back to Nice and camp on the west side - where the guy said to in the first place. Time for sunscreen either way.

Day 3

Yup...rolling through Nimes and I'm sure it's fun but hard to say why that'd be true by the looks of it. Not as graceful for the bike storage but okay and normally they charge 10 E and just have space for 6. Shower and wash pants would be good soon. No formal tourist activities just biking, grocery store, camp, rinse, and repeat. The Cote d'Azur is road-bikers heaven, I must say. Sometimes the wind is pretty firm but the coast turns and then it's tailwind. Bought an International Herald Tribune and gazpacho. Makes for an interesting mood. Tranquille.

Day 4

Nah...No Italia. I made it to Monaco though. It's like Aruba with more Bentley dealers and fewer hotels and casinos but not that crazy or big. Smaller towns usually seem more fun but unless I had a gig I wouldn't come back. Can't complain about the Cote d'Azur though. Just saw an awesome seagull fight. Will try to find some music in Nice. Word.

Ah are the sleepiest French town I have ever seen. Found an ok-for-this-bike piste (trail) that leaves Bordeaux to the SE and goes pretty much east. Cool old stuff to see or so says the tourist office map. This morning I went to the market and got some food. There was this guy with an idea I thought was great: sell half and full liter quantities of higher quality box wine in bottled water bottles. So I got a demi of merlot and a reserve for 2.40. Yes. More than a full bottle of wine, already in plastic for safe bike transport. Did you have a cool weekend? Saturday in Bordeaux was ok but live music is banned after midnight, so I missed it. Oh well. Sweet dreams. Word.

Day 5

Well, I'm down to 70 centimes, but I've got my bases covered with food and such. Dodged a few rain showers finding bridges and shacks at the right time. We'll have to come back here because there are a lot of good bike paths through wine country and its not hilly. See you tomorrow.