[Author’s note: In the summer of 1992, my husband, Hal Cannon, and I spent a little over three weeks in Eastern Europe and a few days in Ireland before joining Hal’s daughter Anneliese in Paris for two weeks in France and Italy. These are a few jottings from the European portion of our trip.]
We arrived in Paris late at night and woke up early to explore the city. We had coffee and baguettes with fromage and then made our way to the Latin corner where we followed the sound of accordion music to another café. We strolled through Notre Dame, searched out a couple English bookstores where we might find a guide to Italy, and generally basked in the thrill of being in Paris. Mid afternoon we returned to our neighborhood, St. Ambroise, and bought a baguette, a round of Camembert, a basket of perfect strawberries, and a bottle of wine that we took to the little park across from our hotel.The park was filled with children and their voices drifted over to us as we sat on a sunny bench and watched a group of men play bolls: a crusty gentleman in a wool sportsman’s cap, grey knit vest, grey pants and tennis shoes; a portly fellow with an Alfred Hitchcock profile; a young and cocky East Indian with a pregnant wife and a beautiful son whom he scooped up each time he completed his turn; a small middle-aged gay man with a gentle smile; a school-age boy (fifteen or so) who placed his balls accurately but was an easy mark for the others to dislodge. People came in and out of the game and everyone’s accuracy ebbed and flowed. A longhaired fellow in shorts joined for a while. His style was particularly flamboyant — a twisted backhand with his free hand held in Egyptian form for counterbalance — and he was amazingly hot at first but later lost it. We stayed in the park for a long time, enjoying the warm sun, our perfect strawberries, the music of the children’s voices, the easy timbre of things. Moments come like this in a life, exquisite and complete, as rich and valuable as jewels. We had, admittedly, fallen into lazy ways, and we needed Liese’s arrival to jolt us. We caught the Métro at 5 a.m. the next morning to meet her. She had not slept a wink on the plane but she was hungry, excited, and ready to go. We returned to the hotel for a quick shower and then launched into Paris.
Liese has a gift for language and a hunger for culture. She had studied the city and knew exactly what she wanted to see in our few days there. We visited the Cluny, the medieval museum which had been closed when Liese had visited Paris two years before with her mother; the Musée d’Orsay, with it’s collection of modern art; and the Louvre. We mastered the Metró, made a thorough study of the city’s creperies, chocolatiers and iciers, shopped at the Bon Marché for exotic picnic fare, drooled over French fashions at the Galleries Lafayette, visited St. Chapelle for a concert (but found it closed), watched an English movie (Howard’s End), strolled along the Seine, ate pizza in the Latin Quarter, and became lasting friends with our local baker, a cheery woman with a sing-song voice who always seemed entirely delighted to see us and kept plying us with her extraordinary apple tarts. We were joined in many of these adventures by Kim Stafford and his daughter Rosemary, friends from Portland who shared our hotel (and who, in fact, had found it for us), and one morning we all visited the flea market. Rosemary bought some candies and two necklaces, Liese bought an antique knife and corkscrew for Hal for Father’s Day, Hal and I bought a used satchel so we could leave some things in storage and a pack of cards with Parisien views for use on the train, and Kim bought a silk kimono for himself and a flowered hat for Rosemary in which, we all agreed, she looked dashing. On Sunday, three days after Liese’s arrival, the three of us caught a fast train for Strasburg and used the trip — the first time we’d sat down, it seemed, in days — to catch up on our sleep.
We spent the next two days in Colmar, a town so beautiful that the Germans refused to bomb it when they bombarded France: twisty cobblestone streets; half-timbered houses in various blues, browns, yellows and pinks; baskets of pansies and geraniums off every balcony; swans floating on the many small canals. It was so picturesque that we could imagine we inhabited a Walt Disney set, with the same sense of exquisite cleanliness. The first night, we wandered around in dazed bliss, but in the end we were ready to leave. The very perfection of the place had become, somehow, annoying. It was hard to feel hearty there. We were ready for Italy.
En route to Venice, we stopped in Lausanne and spent the afternoon on Lake Genéve. Our Eurorail passes entitled us to passage on the lake carrier and we spent a few extra francs for deck chairs in the sun. We drank seltzer as we watched the terraced villages and vineyards glide by, the Alps magnificent in the distance. Liese had brought a Walkman and a collection of arias and we took turns listening. We stopped for dinner in Montreuil and had drinks high on top of the Suisse Majestic, then caught the train back to Lausanne to connect with our midnight sleeper for Venice.
Ahh, the cattle car of sleep. First class couchettes, with four beds, don’t cross the borders, so we found ourselves in a compartment for six. A silent Italian man boarded with us in Lausanne, which was fine, but two lost English boys joined us in the middle of the night, tripping over everything, bringing the ladder crashing down more than once as they got up and down and up again, worried about the fate of their passports. We arrived in Venice about nine in the morning, a bit worse for wear.
But it was Venice, and morning, and we couldn’t wait to explore. We caught a water taxi to San Marcos to take a waterbus tour of the other islands. Hal and I had stumbled onto a remarkable walking tour in Dublin, given by a college student with a great love of history and a flare for storytelling, but these were not our Venetian guide’s particular passions. She was a young woman of twenty or so in a hot pink dress with a short skirt that flared fetchingly as the boat bumped over the waves. She wore narrow dark glasses and chewed gum, and it was obvious that her spiel, which she had given hundreds of times, bored her completely. She introduced one island as “the place where they do the glass a’blowin’” and another as “the place for the lace a’makin’.” But the sky was blue, the water calm, and each island distinct from the others; we were happy to tag along.
When we returned to Venice, we found a hotel, schlepped our luggage from the train station, showered and died. It was dark by the time we surfaced again. We dressed and headed for San Marcos Square.
Orchestras played outside the many hotels and we wandered in and out of a dozen melodies. Liese was wore a deep blue dress and she was slender and graceful as she walked along the water’s edge under a string of white lights, her dress the same glowing cobalt as the sky and water. Experiencing a great city is like falling in love, and that night we were all weak with infatuation.
One of the exhibits that had fascinated me most at the Musée d’Orsay had been a model of Paris set beneath a heavy glass floor. You could actually walk on top of it, and there had been something dreamy about looking down at the miniature city as if it were at the bottom of a clear blue lake. That night I had a sense of Venice as similarly tiny and enchanted, the three of us wanderings its exquisitely modeled streets but also floating above them, seeing ourselves as if in a dream, from far above.
We loved Venice but we could not afford to stay long so we headed south. We ended up in Praiano, a steep hill town on the Amalfi coast, in a one-star pensione called La Tranquilita. The three brothers who ran it were dour and quiet, not at all given to the effusive gestures of Italian cliché. One of them had a German wife, a blond woman with eczema who checked us in but whom we never saw again.
The hotel was built into the hill, on many levels, and had no interior stairways. We settled into a large room with a powder-blue vaulted ceiling and two sets of double doors that opened onto a tiled terrace and a magnificent view of the ocean. The colors are very pure in this part of Italy – the sky and water clear blue, the buildings stark white, the roofs red, the floors a deep terra cotta. We loved our terrace and spent hours there, reading, playing music, or leaning over the low stucco wall to gaze at the deep blue sea. Once we watched a huge white ship with six gleaming sails glide silently around the point on its way to Amalfi. A narrow stairway led from our room to the ocean and we made our way down its 266 steps several times a day to dive off the cliffs into the bath-warm water.
We had planned to stay in Praiano two nights at the most but something happened to us there. Perhaps it was all the swimming, or the translucent light, or the brothers’ good cooking and the way they gradually warmed to us. All the other sites and places we had planned to see gradually faded in importance and our days took on a lazy indolence as we kept extending our stay. We rallied one day to visit Pompeii, but mostly we stayed close to our village, walking aimlessly up the steep streets or down to the cluster of cafés in a nearby cove, eating oranges and lemon-marinated raisins on our terrace, napping in the extraordinary sun, cooling off with a swim.
We stayed so long in Praiano that we had only two days in Provence before we were due to arrive in Lyon to meet the Hummels, the family we had made contact with through Liese’s French tutor in Salt Lake. Max and Jacqueline Hummel have a daughter, Delphine, who is Liese’s age. We had arranged to leave Liese with them for two weeks and then Liese would bring Delphine back to stay with us in the States. Max met us at the station. He is short and animated, much given to laughter and waving of arms. He and Hal made fast friends, and we all enjoyed the sight of them, Mutt and Jeff, through the rest of our stay. Jacqueline is quieter, a tender woman with a hearty laugh, and Delphine is, well, Delphine, the one and only: tiny, dark, playful, and delightfully unpredictable.
We stayed with the Hummels for three days. Delphine and Liese were often off on their own, talking nonstop – about boys, as near as we could figure out – as Max and Jacqueline took us through the wine country, introducing us to the best chocolatier in all of France and giving us a life-long hunger for the cheeses of Lyon.
One night the six of us strolled across the river to the old part of town for dinner. As is the custom, we ate around ten o’clock, and when we were through, the city was still teeming with life. Small tables of diners crowded the sidewalks and pedestrians clogged the streets. We came around a corner to an explosion of fireworks in a churchyard, the finale of a festival. The whole city seemed alive with a Mardi Gras spirit, though the Hummels assured us it was nothing out of the ordinary.
It is difficult to describe how close our two families became in such a short time, especially when we adults were struggling so hard with the language. But all too quickly we were standing on the platform of the train station, kissing each other over and over on both cheeks, our eyes filling with tears. Liese had been doing well with her French, but she looked scared as our train pulled away. Two weeks later she would return home to us, taller than ever, radiating a new confidence and chattering French like a native. She would bring Delphine with her and we’d launch into a whole new adventure. But for now it was hard to see her growing smaller in the distance and it was hard to leave new friends. We waved long past the point they could see us.
©1992, 2006 by Teresa Jordan