SLC > CDG . Not direct, though it does exist . . . and would be luxury. But no, SLC > IAD, IAD>CDG, then Line 9518 to Cergy-Pantoise (a suburb north of Paris). Two weeks. Agenda: visit Dain, see uncles, take in some architecture, eat some delicious food, drink some delicious wine, exercise some language, climb some rocks, visit friends in the southeast, return inspired and rested (or just inspired, if necessary).
Fact is Paris is best in the fall. I can’t claim to know Paris in the same way that many do, but I know it is best in the fall. Summer brings out the stench, long lines, throngs of tourists (just like me). Winter reveals the coldness of Parisian heart along with impenetrable gray skies. Spring is nice, but capricious, and anxious somehow . . . Fall, the French have just returned from their annual vacation down south and are relieved that summer is over and they can settle back into their skepticism. The trees are exhaling a tawny end, rendering the lost path between x and y that much more enjoyable.
Which explains most foreign journeys in my case – meandering lost through different seasons of a city, half in search of a destination, but not too bothered by the fact that I haven’t seen that street name before . . . and it doesn’t even appear on the map. The initial delight to interrupt my sense of misdirection + jetlag: Dain taking me by the hand and leading me to the café where he had arranged to have a drink with my uncles who are also on vacation in Paris. I kept my arrival a secret . . . the surprise made my uncle cry . . . which made me cry . . . it was beautiful. Beautiful followed by amazing food and wine (check boxes 1, 2, 4 and 5). Quickly thereafter, I careened into the dreams that had been peering over my shoulders since dinner, crashing happily into the nest of neatly puckered French phonemes floating through the window.
Upon reawakening and readjusting to French realtime, my uncles led the way to the Arab World Institute. Their proficiency impressive on all counts, we made our way quickly, unlost, to our destination. We arrived at Jean Nouvel’s apertured box to find its courtyard hosting a smooth white amoeba easily identifiable as one of Hadid’s exhibition creatures . . . full of provocative self-referential white objects. The amoeba in the yard spread horizontal and in stark contrast with the formal restraint of Nouvel’s tall box wrapped in a skin of camera parts. While Dain and my uncles appeared to enjoy the strange architecture (or maybe they just love me), let’s face it, few people outside of the design world go to Paris to check out buildings built in the past few decades/weeks. They want history, deeply wrapped in time and soot and bomb scars, built over centuries and rubbed into smooth submission by millions of fingers. So we moved on. First to a café, then to an old Roman bath house converted into a museum, then to another café, then to another cathedral. And I just kept checking boxes, rechecking, double-checking, adding another rub to that stone statue’s smooth toe.
After a couple of days meandering well-sated and in perfect company, my uncles departed for continued journeys in Amsterdam. Dain and I put down a couple falafel sandwiches in the Pompidou Plaza and packed our weekend bags for the forests of Fontainebleau. Fontainebleau is situated just south of Paris, the home to old aristocratic hunting grounds. More importantly, there are large herds of sandstone boulders that emerge from the sandy forest floor—house-sized gray boulders that make one’s palms sweat (the climber equivalent of salivating). Arguably the world’s best bouldering, Fontainebleau boulders are like Corbusian architecture – the historical origin par excellence that simultaneously explains and dwarfs our current situation, if that makes sense. So, yes, a couple of days climbing in my favorite zone after a few days in the city – a perfect anodyne to the inherent filth and claustrophobia of the city (albeit beautiful and romantic . . . it also coats ones fingers in hypochondria and soot).
From Fontainebleau, we returned briefly to Paris to catch our south-bound train, stopping in on the Villa Savoye on the way. Then, Paris > Geneve. A day in Geneva, Dain had never been before (despite having lived only 30 minutes away when he was on exchange in college) – so we wandered through the cobblestone eating gelato, peering into cathedrals, and checking out the best-dressed, before catching another train to Leysin. An anomaly of a thing, but true, a very slow Swiss train carried us around the arching back of Lake Geneva. Arriving in Aigle with the school children, boarding the cog car to haul us up into the classic bucolic Swiss mountain town where our friends live. Leysin looks across the Rhone Valley, a small but international town built around skiing and hospitality. The visit was brief, but enough to reconnect with good friends with a drive to a high place in the mountains for a drink while watching the sun set on Mont-Blanc. We continued on to Annemasse to visit an old friend from that I had made while studying in Chambéry. Another brief visit, a hike to a good view, a sopping wet descent in the rain, laughter among familiar hearts, and a final warming with squash soup, and roasted chestnuts.
Back in Paris, Dain returned to his academic obligations and I returned to the museums and the falafel stands. A few days longer, a few more sips of deeply shadowed Parisian streets, then the return home, to SLC.