Day 38

April 21


I am sitting in a flat on the fourth floor of a mid Nineteenth Century apartment house overlooking the vast plaza in front of Notre Dame. Even though the time is approaching seven in the evening, the crowd of well over a thousand is still milling around, many awaiting entry into the church, others just hanging out. The bells of the cathedral are ringing loudly. The evening sun basks the white walls of Mireille’s tastefully decorated flat where we will be staying for the next several days. We are in Paris. The world is good.


To understand the French leg of the journey, you need some history. We will be staying at the homes of two people who are very dear to us. The first is Mireille, who is Embry’s de facto older French sister, who has rented the flat where we are now for the last fifty years. The second is Martine, the former French wife of Embry’s brother, Mike, who despite being an ex, has always been our bonafide sister-in-law. Martine lived in the US for around 25 years, raising their two children(to whom we are very close) in North Carolina but moved back to France following her retirement a number of years ago and now lives in a seaside town, in Brittany. We will take the train there in a couple of days.

A word on the Mireille connection. When Embry was twelve, her family shipped her off via Icelandic Airlines for a summer in France where she would live with a French family. The oldest son of the family of seven children had attended Davidson on a Fulbright Scholarship in the 1950s where he became close to Embry’s family. A second French summer followed a few years later. Merrille, the middle child, was about ten years older than Embry and took a special interest in her, helping her learn the language and adapt to the French culture. They have remained close ever since. And the relationship has continued into the next generation. Our kids have stayed with Mireille or her extended family; and her son, Bartheleme, stayed with us for a summer when worked as an intern at Howell Associates and crewed on Wednesday night sailboat races.


Mireille was at the train station to greet us last evening as we roared in on our bullet train. Though she will be 80 this year, she is fit and spry, and it was all we could do to keep up with her as we charged out of Gare Lyon and flagged down a cab. The evening was spent catching up and enjoying a delicious light meal of bread, cheese and a salad. Nobody does fresh bread and cheese better than the French. But the catching up part was bitter sweet. Four of the seven children have died, including the youngest, Henri, who also attended Davidson for a year and someone I knew, though not well. He was only 65. (Embry was aware of only two of the deaths.)

Bitter sweet, yes. But also the way life runs its course on the planet Earth. We are getting old. When people get old, they eventually die. It is a blessing that our health has permitted us to embark on this adventure, and we are probably in a fairly small minority of people our age who are physical able, have the time, money and the inclination to take a trip like this. When you are in your eighth decade and you hear a voice in your head, “Do it now, you never know how much time you have left,” you pay attention. When you catch up as we did this evening, it reminds you how short life is and how you only get one shot in trying to get it as right as you can. And no one is saying it is easy. Mireille lost her husband over 35 years ago to cancer and has had to manage as a single parent raising two sons and being a widow way before her time—which she has done with style and grace. But it has not been easy.

So here we are for a few days before we go to Brittany and then return for another short stay before heading to Germany. The weather has been absolutely gorgeous, lots of flowering trees, daffodils and tulips, blue skies and temperatures around seventy. It is April in Paris!

And is their anything more glorious than a warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon in Paris in April? I am convinced that everyone physically able—and even many who are not—is outside today enjoying the sunshine and the street activity that is so splendidly Paris. Families have spread out blankets and make-shift tablecloths along the Seine and in the parks. Husbands are opening bottles of wine as the kids skate board or kick around a soccer ball and wives pull bread and cheese out of picnic baskets. Old men with canes are sitting on park benches discussing affairs of the afternoon and watching all the action. The sidewalk cafes are jam packed for afternoon café or a glass of beer, and ubiquitous French couples are embracing and kissing even as they walk by fast as if they were afraid of missing the last train to someplace. Only here, I think, can you witness in one split instant the depth and breath of what I believe is the best life has to offer on this troubled planet. It is April and it is Paris. Life is good.





14 thoughts on “Day 38

  1. we put our 14-year old daughter on the plane to France much the same way. She spent the summer with a family in Lyon, cousins of someone working for Irwin at NRL. Her French was in its beginning stages — and immersion was painful. the family spent their vacation on Corsica – where the kids left the minimalist cottage at 8 am and spent until bedtime with other teenagersn roaming the island. (hard to understand in a crowd when you are still at level 1). We would get plaintive calls from a phone box on le Corse saying “i just want to hear english for a minute.” But Pia, like Embry, became the master of her life and a competent traveler in the process of coping with all those unknowns.

    Paris – it sends me into reveries. thanks for making my morning coffee time such a joy.


  3. Joe, Embry,

    While I enjoyed reading about all the different segments of your trip this write up this has been my favorite. I think connecting our advancing years and observing April in Paris is very special. The best life has to offer certainly rang a loud bell. I am looking forward to sharing the rest of your travels and reading about places that are not as familiar to me as Paris. Enjoy everyday. Andy

  4. Uh oh. I just lost all my comments. The computer swallowed them I think.
    I’ll try to remember what I said – the gist of it.

    Well done Joe!
    The prose fits like a glove, the moment, the place and the author; as if it were native there, as if it had a home between the countries.
    It feels so natural and unforced, so enjoyable, so comfortable with itself.
    You’re onto something.
    Keep writing… But don’t forget to take a few pictures! (I loved the photos. Especially it was good to see Mireille – how vibrant she is, how well she has aged. And to see her and Mimy together: to sense the depth in the background, there, how much history there is in the bond between these two beautiful women – the Franco-American, and the Jansenist-Presbyterian/Episcopalian, and the individual, deeply personal and unique – and all the other bridges, which were crossed between them, and which have kept the traffic flowing for all of us.

  5. And you haven’t seen Brittany yet! Our history starts …450 thousands years ago, during the paleolithic age, when people didn’t speak yet, but had discovered fire. We’ll take you to one of the oldest such “fireplace”. People staid here uninterruptedly, all through the neolithic (we’ll see some of the burial places), then the age of the megaliths, the Keltic times, the Roman days, the Middle Ages and all the way up to now, the Brittons having been some of the most devoted Christians, then passionate revolutionaries and now at the leading edge of digital industry. All types of arts and musics. I can’t wait to meet you at the train station in a couple of hours and to start showing you around. Much love

  6. Well, Joe, you’re galloping wonderfully. l discover a perseverent Joe in writing too.
    l would like to clarify a point about Davidson, l judge important, as l am now the last person who can do it.
    It is indeed thanks to my brother Guy, who had a Fulbright Scholarship just after the World War 2 , in 1947, that l went to Davidson and not anywhere else around 10 years later.
    l had been Invited by Mr and Ms Goldiere’s, the name of the professor of French at Davidson, when they first came on a trip to Europe, and visited “Guy’s family”. And it is only a few years later, once in Davidson at the most charming Goldiere’s invitation, that l had the great pleasure of meeting the Martin’s history.

    …”When Embry was twelve, her family shipped her off via Icelandic Airlines to France where she would live with Mireille’s French family of seven chidren. Along with the youngest son Henry, Embry would go to shool and try to understand latin, etc. Mireille , who was about ten years older than Embry, though responsible for inviting her darling young friend to her French family, would spend most of the time out at work or with her lover!
    l hope to see you to-morrow if the Brittons did not eat you.

  7. Joe, you are indeed an engaging writer! I am in constant catch-up mode because my viewing is sporadic and yet I feel I have to go back and read the prior posts so I don’t miss any of your great story telling. This post brings back memories of my 6 hour foray into Paris a couple of years ago on my way back from Morocco. I know exactly where you are staying because I did get to see Notre Dame cathedral – outside and inside. Needless to say one cannot see much in six hours but by that point I was limping and I needed to find my way back to the airport hotel without speaking a word of French. I have to ask, did you see any of those damn Canadian geese on the plaza by the museums? I dunno, maybe they were just French kissing cousins to the real Canadian geese. I mean, really, aren’t there enough golf courses and open areas in north American where they can poop? Keep these stories coming!

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