We have all lived long enough that many of us have thrilled to great triumphs in our lives, but many also have suffered terrible tragedies. Pittsburgh-based editorial cartoonist, writer, and artist Tim Menees has had his share of both. Maybe more than his share. Some of that came together in a recent trip to Paris, a city that stirs one’s emotions … bad and good.
Our purser on the flight to Paris could have been one of those bygone Hollywood “Latin lovers,” a modern Rudolph Valentino: sensual lips, dark combed-back hair and mellow voice. At daybreak, he collects our breakfast remnants and says, “Trust me, you’ll get much better croissants in Paris.”
We’re still over the Atlantic and a few doze, or pretend to.
After we land and check into our apartment we go for groceries and cheap wine. We listen to a woman busker on the sidewalk singing “Stars Fell on Alabama.” We get hot chocolate and a coffee at a sidewalk cafe. That night we pass by a favorite restaurant, then a gay bar, its sidewalk packed, male voices echoing off the old stone buildings.
At four the next morning the streets are vacant save for a man in an apron sweeping a café and a woman searching through a supermarket dumpster.
We visit a community center where a group of Parisians are trying to learn English and having the same fits I do with French.
Outside the Picasso Museum we wait in line behind maybe Brigitte Bardot, aging, lots of lipstick, huge sunglasses and a scarf over her hair. At Pontoise to change trains and head to the final home of Vincent van Gogh, a young railway employee says our connection has been changed. He shows us where to grab a coffee, gets us through the turnstile and jots down the best train back to Paris. In Auvers sur Oise and van Gogh’s sparse bedroom, the fields and church he painted and his grave on a hill.
In a small ice cream shop a Parisian friend, the longtime editor of a humor review, tells us she knew the cartoonists gunned down in early 2015 at Charlie Hebdo. A mime takes a cigarette break and chats with a buddy. A father and small son play accordions on the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf, the boy’s eyes locked on his dad’s fingering.A striped cat sits on a chair in a bistro.
As we gradually carve out a tiny space for ourselves — for two weeks the apartment is ours — we wonder. Paris is rambunctious and impersonal, yet also famous for art and, important this time, light.
At dinner my wife tearfully says that I’ve just made an expression like our son. Two young women at the next table notice. I explain it has only been eight months, and they pass us part of their salade au chèvre chaud.
In the morning we hear the chirping and laughing of children as young moms escort them to school.
Would our son have wanted this for us? We’ll never know. I put little stock in that. We can surmise but is that even relevant? I do know he always bounced back, even in his dark times, and he never stayed down for long. It wasn’t like him to die.
Our daughter says this trip is a good thing. She always prefers we visit her and her family — our grandchildren — in California, but this is what we want. We’re moving forward, overcoming the horrific moments which no longer seize us as frequently.
It’s about small rewards. It’s about embracing each other.