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.