Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fontainebleau & David

I met David on the steps of Basilique d'Sacred Coeur. He was a young, inquisitive Chinese man who was exploring Europe on his own prior to a business meeting in Germany. He looked even more bewildered and conspicuous than I did, so I introduced myself. I had spent several days on my own, looking for inspiration and scouring the luminous paintings of Louvre for the face of my heroine. Then I had watched non-museum goers try to be efficient in the Louvre Museum, with a very goal-oriented approach and laughed to myself while incurring curious stares from bystanders. Since I obviously needed to get out of my own head and he needed company, we joined forces. We had café au lait in Montmartre, picnicked on an inviting green with a fabulous view of Tour Eiffel, and went to the Chateau de Fontainebleau together.

David was a hopeless romantic searching for love. I was jaded, broken, and my heart was irretrievably scarred. Already, I should have seen the dangers as this was not the first David whose heart I may have broken, although I inevitably hurt myself more than anyone else. At the time, I was keen on my discovery of French castles and endeavored to visit as many chateaux as possible. In doing so, I inadvertently blew off my mother’s cousin who was waiting for me in the metro to go to Chinatown. Granted, she never even asked me what I wanted to do, but I continue to feel guilty even to this day.

I seemed to have committed many faux pas in this city of lights. Even so, I did grudgingly fall in love Paris. Quite honestly, I always resented the falling metaphor in this expression because love feels more like soaring to me. Maybe it is the aftermath they are warning us about, where we fall and crash and burn if the story does not end happily.

On to the Chateau de Fontainebleau! It was about an hour ride outside of the city. Oddly enough, it was less ornate than the other castles with soft wooden accents and swirls of more palatable colors like lavender, saffron, and baby blue instead of the burgundies and emeralds of Versailles. Apparently, this palace was sacked during the French Revolution, with many of its treasures sold. It wasn’t until Napoleon that this chateau was restored and his taste was decidedly different from that of the monarchy. I also got the sense that this was not a highly visited site, since the temperature was decidedly low as if heating was not a priority here.

The gardens and courtyards were a wonder. Fontainebleau was a former royal hunting park, surrounded by a lush forest that offers refuge to a myriad of endangered species. The canal and pine, elm, fruit trees did not seem the slightest bit contrived, but rather as a natural converging of land and its finest resources to nourishing a circle of life. Nightingales were singing as we strolled along the gardens and footpaths of the largest chateau in France.

David and I had a lively, albeit somewhat contentious discussion about love. He was a Protestant with very specific views of the world, partnership, and marriage. He was indefatigably optimistic about love, believing that there was someone for everyone and every woman was meant to be a wife, to bear children just like every man was meant to be a husband. When I expressed uncertainty as to my path, he insisted that my path was of course the universal path every woman wanted. I resisted his line of thinking, as I resisted his shy and awkward attempts to convey his feelings later that week.

Even though he was very sweet, even though he genuinely seemed to like me, even though he wined and dined me the rest of my evenings in Paris, and even though we were in the starlit city of dreams, I simply could not accept him.

I could not be anything other than what I am.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


In high school, I developed a fascination for Marie Antoinnette. It came as the result of writing a term paper, the intrigue of a fashionable and profligate queen who taunted the starving masses of Paris. “Let them eat cake.” The purchase of an exquisite diamond necklace followed, when the monarchy was sorely in debt. Thus toppled the throne of Louis XVI, ended the Old Regime of nobility, and began the infamous French Revolution. The city was engulfed in blood and massacre. She was interrogated by the Jacobins, condemned, and executed via guillotine, stripped of all the luxury and satin and jewels of her glory days. Yet she was still a queen.

History paints a flattering picture indeed. Marie Antoinnette was once Princess Maria Antonia of Austria, fatherless and governed by the iron will of her mother, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa. At the naïve age of fourteen, she was promised to Le Dauphin Louis Auguste, a political alliance that was to begin with a marriage.

France loved and hated her. By all standards, she was a radiant, voluptuous merry creature like a nymph of old. Her eyes were blue and translucent, her hair was strawberry blonde and her bust measured forty-six inches (which ought to please the fellows). She loved dancing, singing, wild entertainments as well as expensive clothes. Little did they know her husband was impotent and neglected her, she suffered from the decorum at court, and was virtually friendless in this alien world.

France was hungry. Their queen was an extravagant woman who delighted in grand parties. L’Autrichienne. All hell broke loose.

Now I walked through the garish salons of Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors, all the gorgeous and excessively adorned rooms of gold carvings and rich tapestries. There was an abundance of velvet, feathers, heavy embroidery and gold everywhere. Yes, it was awe-striking and impressive and even intimidating, which may have been the sole intent of the Sun King Louis XIV. “L’etat, C’est moi.” Yet it was impossible to feel comfort, peace, or a sense of belonging within these gilded walls. Perhaps it was my humble station that was talking, but I couldn’t help wondering if Marie Antoinette felt the same way.

Then a visit to Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s retreat, which was really a long walk away that the majority of tourists did not bother to take. It was not grandiose or garish or even royal. It was a simple cottage with beautiful landscaping and I could see the ancient queen confiding with her cherished companion Yolande de Polignac. This seemed the only place she could escape the fury of France.

People do strange things when they lack love. They play, frolic, amuse themselves in expensive ways, and they buy gleaming inanimate things that appear so dear in the moment. I think of Marie Antoinette’s spending, partying, gambling and our present-day “It” celebrities with the drugs, drinking, and binging. Maybe they are not so different after all.

Miraculously, people do even stranger things when they are in love. At some point Marie Antoinette won Louis’ heart and bore him several healthy children. In the later years of his reign, she proved to be a responsible mother and conscientious queen who actually declined to buy that famed necklace bearing the Hope Diamond, the necklace that she ultimately died for.

And at some remote corner of her tragic history, she was reputed to have made a true friend, a kindred spirit. Count Axel van Fersen of Sweden, who organized her family’s last attempt for freedom, the flight to Varennes, out of love for this flawed and yet utterly lovable woman.

It all goes back to love. And friendship.

Perhaps they are the same.

Friday, January 27, 2012

La Vie en Montmartre

Next stop was that eclectic neighborhood of artists and writers, bohemians and courtesans (popularized by the Moulin Rouge), Parisian and foreigner alike. Montmartre. The Basilique de Sacre Coeur stood like a virgin in the midst of a rowdy, egregious, and at times drunken crowd. A Catholic monastery of beauteous proportions, it was a curved white dome that housed golden frescoes of the faith within. Light was used as an architectural construct, crossing the path of many a tourist.

This was to be my home for the next few days. The monastery allowed lodging to pilgrims seeking travel and spiritual enlightenment. I awoke to the Gregorian chanting of the nuns every morning, sibilant voices that seemed other-worldly. This must be what angels sounded like (in French no less!)

I changed money to pay for my keep (by the way, the nuns only took cash), and oriented myself despite a poor sense of direction. A friendly, plump African-Franco sister tried to direct me through the labyrinth of the city, but to no avail. I got lost on the Metro. Because I did not know where to begin, I began anywhere.

I walked aimlessly, armed with a baguette and a few ounces of Brie fromage. One should never underestimate the tastiness of French bread. In the Champs Elysees I found myself, and chatted with a Sorbonne physics student along a park bench. I saw the glass pyramid of the Louvre. By the time I got to the Arc de Triomphe, my legs were so cramped that I panted and sat squarely on the ground. In another time and another place, I might have been embarrassed. However, desperation reigned and there I squatted, idiotic or not.

Perhaps I had finally accepted my limitations.

While excited tourists clicked digital cameras and Asian lovebirds engaged in corny poses, I thought about the grace of the present moment. Pam, a beloved friend and spiritual mentor, had taught we are called to be the best version of ourselves in the present moment. This moment is unique, from the people we encounter to the warmth of the sun, and there are limitless possibilities of what we can do and who we decide to become. We can constantly reinvent ourselves. Pam’s own life was an evolution from award-winning radio producer who covered the Tiananmen Massacre in the 1980s to respected theology professor to director of admissions for an inner-city school.

Each day was a rebirth. Because I had nothing, I was liberated from all the attachments that typically hold us back: jobs, family obligations, financial responsibilities. I felt like a tabula rasa once again, a blank slate upon which multitudes of stories could be written.

Which would I choose? Where would life take me?

In the course of wandering, I stumbled back upon Montmartre, to the prestigious cemetery that sheltered the bones of the rich and prominent. Edgar Degas and Alexandre Dumas and Francois Truffaut, to name a few. I only remembered artists, even though legions of famous politicians dwelt there as well.

How much land, how much living space did these notable folks claim as their own while alive? Yet, how much land does one really require to be buried? The irony is that most people are buried in very similarly-sized plots of land, egalitarian almost. (Notwithstanding the meticulous detail and expense some of these folks invested in their tombs.)

Why, then, do we like to acquire so many things?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Aimeric & Chantilly

It wasn’t until the next evening that I spoke to Aimeric.

For the life of me, I could not figure out how to use the shower (yes, foreign gadgets befuddle me). So I approached Aimeric. The door to his room was open, the light was oddly dim, and the television was loud and blaring. Posters of race cars ornamented his walls. It seemed the room of quintessential teenager, universally familiar and disordered. As he sauntered back from the bathroom and a particularly uninspiring demo, I was about to pass him off as an overgrown freeloader, lazy and leeching off his mother.

Except that he hobbled.

This tall, handsome young man walked with a slight limp. Even though it was barely noticeable, it changed my entire perception of him. Somehow, he seemed marred physically, like a blatant splash of ink upon an otherwise flawless painting.

My eyes surveyed his bedroom for a crutch, cast, or a sign of recent injury. Instead, I saw the discarded covers for Lidoderm patches. My fingers gripped the doorknob in remembrance of pain, the devastating post-operative pain that required me to use those patches. My heart went out to him.

I asked rather indelicately, but Aimeric was frank and unabashed. Apparently, he had hemophilia, the disease of bleeding without clotting, which caused lumps in his knees and arms due to unequal pressure or concentration of blood. There were times when the pain was excruciating, particularly when he moved. Oxycodone or Percocet, gabapentin, hospital-administered morphine, he had tried it all.

He said he couldn’t work until the university releases his diploma, but they were on strike at the moment. There was nothing he could do. As he folded his hands in his lap, the melancholy that permeated his being was so potent I felt it keenly.

The next morning, I was scheduled to see the Chateau at Chantilly, literally five minutes from Joce’s house. To my surprise, Aimeric volunteered to take me around the exquisite Baroque castle. The chateau faced a lake, offering its own resplendent reflection on a clear day. I truly loved it. To me, this was the most beautiful and well-balanced chateau in all of France.

Aimeric narrated the history of this landmark, destroyed during the French Revolution, and rebuilt in the late 1800s. The art collection, Musee de Conde, was particularly prestigious and extensive. The gardens were elegant, the original inspiration of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. Of particular note were the Great Stables, which looked like towering majesties in their own right. He told me festivals took place over the stable grounds and fireworks were displayed on national holidays.

Aimeric seemed to come to life over the course of the day. No longer was he the reticent personality of the day before. As I listened to him, I realized how isolated he was.

He reminded me of myself during my teenage years, after my parents got divorced. I had felt there was an invisible barrier between myself and any possibility of happiness. A glass wall existed between me and my contemporaries; they could laugh without inhibitions and it was hard for me to find anything that was worth laughing about.

It wasn’t until I met Suneeta did I learn what it meant to be loved for your soul, your thoughts, and your most intrinsic self. The basic human need is that of being understood. After that moment and that wonderful girl who became my best friend, I never felt alone.

I suddenly felt close to this bright-eyed, twenty-two year old French boy, suffering from an ailment that will never cease.

Aimeric. Aimer. The French verb “to love.” Perhaps it is no coincidence.

Perhaps we all need to learn how to love.