Aug 14 2013

Getting Down

All of Paris was spread out before us, the giant floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant put her in perfect view. We were halfway up the Eiffel Tower, at the Jules Verne, noted for its view as much as its gastronomic cuisine. It’s not an every-day kind of restaurant. It’s a having-a-special-experience-in-Paris destination, the kind of place you go with a friend who’s visiting from out of town, or to take your nearly young-adult children for a memorable experience in Paris – or both.

My college roommate came to spend a few days in Paris, with her daughter who is the same age as Short-pants. I remember being pregnant together; I visited her at her summer home in the south of France just a month before Short-pants’ due-date. We posed for pictures, belly-to-belly, showing the girth of our pregnant bodies, smiling at the fact that our children would be born about a month apart, imagining how they might be playmates over the years. I didn’t envision us having lunch at the Jules Verne, but here salmon_entreewe were, her daughter seated between Short-pants and Buddy-roo, the three of them looking beyond us, out the window, at the breath-taking view.

De-facto had ordered a main dish and no starter, guessing correctly that the girls would only pick at their appetizers and he could finish their plates. The gastronomic menu was a bit on the sophisticated side for their palates, though Short-pants devoured her côte de cochon (pork-shops) and whipped potatoes, and Buddy-roo relished her râble de lapin (rabbit) once I cut it into bite-size pieces for her.

We were waiting for dessert, wild strawberries with coconut shortbread and mascarpone sorbet, when my friend pointed out an annoying repetitive noise, like a microwave beeping or an oven alarm. I called the maitre’d over to ask what it was.

“It’s Al Qaeda,” he said, a joke that I didn’t find humorous. When I did not laugh, he brushed it off: just a security alarm but nothing to be concerned about. I asked if it could do something to turn it off. Now that my friend had brought it to my attention, I found it a painful accompaniment to our expensive meal. “We are working on it,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later, our bottle of Mersault finished but still no dessert, the maitre’d returned to our table.

“I apologize for the joke I made earlier,” he said, this time without his sneer. “There has been a bomb threat. The entire tower is being evacuated. You have to leave, now.”

“But we haven’t had dessert yet,” I said, the way you say something stupid when you can’t believe what you’re hearing.

“You haven’t had the bill, either.”

He pointed us to the exit, and we passed other tables of empty chairs with plates of food half-eaten. Some people waited for the restaurant’s elevator, but we were ushered beyond them, to a stairway that leads to the second-level public observation deck.
on_our_way_down
“There is a larger elevator there,” one of the restaurant employees said. “Take that one, it is better not to wait.” I had a vague memory of the lift; years ago with other friends we’d eaten here and left the restaurant via the observation deck, lingering after our meal and enjoying the view. It was one of those room-sized elevators that could fit 25 or 30 people.

We walked down a flight of stairs to the public level. At the bottom we found a huge elevator, its doors stretched open while the kitchen staff, uniformed in black and white, filed into it from another stairway behind ours. They did not fill up the entire lift, so I made a gesture to collect De-facto and the girls and my friend and her daughter and pull them into the elevator as it was shutting. Every one of the restaurant staffers shook their head no and waved us away, and the doors closed, locking us out.

Cursing at the closing service elevator wouldn’t have been very assuring to the young girls, so I swore under my breath. Perhaps there was some rule, I told myself, about employees-only spaces. But do such rules apply now? Would you turn children away from an elevator that’s only two-thirds full during an emergency evacuation?

There were no throngs of people pushing or running, but the gates on the concessions and souvenir kiosks were shut and locked, the security alarm was louder than in the restaurant. It was eerie. We hunted around until we found the public elevator, a crowd waiting in front of the doors. Counting the people, I calculated that we wouldn’t fit into the next elevator, we might make the one after that; but we’d probably have to push into the crowd to hold our place. The vibe felt weird. I didn’t want to be there.

“Why did we have to leave the restaurant?” Buddy-roo whined. I told her the police wanted everyone to leave the tower so they could check it to make sure something bad wouldn’t happen. I didn’t say the word bomb. I didn’t want to alarm the kids and I didn’t want the tourists within earshot to panic. Though given the closed embassies and other security alerts this year, most people could probably guess the reason for our evacuation.
eiffel_towers
I looked at De-facto and then at my friend, “You up for going down the stairs?”

Later I checked online: there are 55 flights of stairs, roughly 700 steps, from the second level where the Jules Verne restaurant is located, to the ground. We walked them all, circling down the long staircase within the east platform of the iron tower. There was steady flow of foot traffic, an occasional bottleneck but mostly fluid. It helped to move; it felt like we were doing something, getting somewhere – getting down.

“But we didn’t have dessert.” Buddy-roo said. The girls had been asking for Slushies on their way to the restaurant, a request that was dismissed given the refined dessert that would top off our elegant lunch. Now Slushies would be dessert, offered as a reward for walking all the way down from the middle of the Eiffel Tower.

A part of me believed that this was just a scare. Another part couldn’t be so cavalier. I held the girls’ hands, tightly, as we made our way down the stairs. I kept looking back at De-facto, taking him in. I’d glance at my friend, picturing her in our wilder college days. Is this where we would all finish? No, of course not, I kept telling myself. But just in case, I kept holding tight and I kept looking back.

I can’t call this a harrowing experience. It was orderly, without panic. We all knew there was a good chance that it would turn out to be nothing. We even teased De-facto about calling in the threat, just to avoid paying the check. But there was something else, something seeping in the cracks around my logical, reasonable conclusions about what was happening: tiny shards of the terror that other souls before us have known, in a plane about to go down, eiffel_tower_evacuatedor stumbling down the stairway of the World Trade Center, or being pressed into a train headed toward a work camp. An event like this reminds me of how randomly vulnerable we are and how precious it is to feel safe and secure.

At the ground level, we walked away from the tower, relieved. The rest of the day, though, I kept thinking about how often innocent people don’t get the chance to walk away because they don’t get out, can’t get down or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The evacuation of the Eiffel Tower made the news, but the story pales in comparison to reports from war-torn conflict-zones, and stories about what war and terrorism do to children. We were lucky. Ours was a happy ending, getting down safely with a free lunch, a good story to tell – a memorable experience in Paris – and a renewed awareness of the things we should never take for granted.


Jun 11 2012

Not in a Rush

When you slow down, a window opens and you see things you couldn’t see before. When you take your time, you sense things, because you’re not rushing through life facing forward, you’re ambling along, receptive to what’s around you. When you give yourself time, you think things through, following a string of thoughts from one thing to the next and then further. Unlike the one-thing-to-another we experience while surfing the web or multi-tasking through a busy day, staccato and mercurial, the thought process that accompanies a long walk in the country is calming and fluid, like waves of water rolling forward and back and forward again. It doesn’t take very long for the chatter to cease, the chirping in the back of your head quiets and the mind is filled with simpler thoughts. There is space for bigger thoughts, or the smaller thoughts have room around them to echo. You start to really see what’s inside you and around you, and notice things that you don’t notice when you’re in a rush.

~ ~ ~

Walking through Pamplona, one of the early stops along the Camino – this was in the beginning of May – I couldn’t help but be reminded of the rituals we enact there every July during the fiesta. It was odd to walk through that city without people and music spilling out into the streets. I walked down the empty Calle Merced, where in two months time, to the day, there’d be long tables set up end-to-end in the street, and friends would be assembling for a breakfast of greasy eggs and chorizo or pochas and red wine. I love those breakfasts, especially when the jota singers among the group stand up and sing their beautiful Navarran ballads. A man named Puchero is a force behind this, his voice bold and full, like his body. When he sings, his mouth stretches wide with each vibratoed note, his eyes bore into you, tearing sometimes because he is singing with such force. If he sings to you, the only thing to do is look right back at him with the biggest smile ever, and stay present to fully receive the song, sung in Spanish and if it is later translated, you are moved by the choice of words and their meaning.

For a minute, I wondered if the Fiesta Nazi, in a fit of generous mischief, would make some arrangement for Puchero to show up at my party and surprise me with a birthday jota. It would be only an hour’s drive for him, and not unthinkable for her to orchestrate something like this. At the same time, it was pretty far-fetched and highly unlikely. Still, I permitted my imagination to hold this image for a few minutes, just for the pleasure of the fantasy, picturing him singing to me and giving my assembled friends this taste of the Navarran culture. A little Walter Mitty moment during my walk.

Two weeks later, when the pit crew kidnapped me to go to my party, I found myself back in Navarra. The day before the big celebration – on my actual birthday – we decided to drive by St. Jean Pied de Port to see where I’d started the Camino. My credentials were getting full – I collected stamps not only from where I slept each night, but from the churches I visited and many of the cafe-bars I stopped at along the way – in St. Jean I could stop by the Camino office and get an extra pilgrim passport to use when my original one got filled up.

It was lunchtime in France – only a few miles away, over the border in Spain, lunch was still something to look forward to – and we decided to eat in St. Jean, installing ourselves at a table on a restaurant terrace along the street. We’d barely clinked glasses when a squat, thick man charged up to our table, trailed by about a dozen other people.

“I know those two girls,” he said between a string of colorful curses. We knew him, too. It was Puchero. By chance, he happened to be visiting St. Jean Pied de Port with a group from Pamplona and just happened to walk down the street where we just happened to be seated. We were as surprised to see him as he was to see us. The Fiesta Nazi didn’t miss a beat. “It’s her birthday,” she said, pointing at me, “sing her a jota!”

Without hesitating even a second, he launched into song, his robust voice belting out a wailing call. His face right away red, the veins in his temple squeezed as he forced every cubic inch of air out of his lungs before a new breath and a new phrase. He literally stopped all activity on the street. Every passerby, every diner on the terrace, every waitress, every shopkeeper, craned their necks to watch and listen to Puchero as he sang me my birthday jota.

It was framed slightly differently than my fantasy of weeks before, but nonetheless, the same elements were there. But this had not been organized in advance, it happened by chance, that Puchero was there and we were too. Had I experienced some kind of premonition? Or had my little fantasy sent out a request that was answered? Or was it all just a coincidence?

~ ~ ~

The first time I had the dream was in Estella, five days into the Camino. I guess you could call it a pilgrim-stress dream, in which I walked to the next town only to realize I’d left my walking poles in the previous night’s hotel. I woke up, relieved to see those familiar bastóns leaning against the chair, that I hadn’t left and walked an entire day’s stage without them. I had the dream again, the next night, waking to check that my poles were still there beside my bed.

A few days later, I lingered in a room I’d shared with five others, letting them all finish their morning ablutions first so that I might have a more leisurely and private departure. (This was prior to the hot meseta after Burgos, when my timing changed and a just-at-dawn departure was required to make tracks before the midday sun.) On my way out, I set my poles against the table by the door, stopping to take advantage of the wifi signal in the lobby to send a word of love to De-facto before heading out for the day’s walk. The door closed behind me, and I walked three blocks before realizing I’d left my poles at the albergue. When I returned, the door was locked and when I knocked, nobody answered. I sat on the stoop wondering how long I’d have to wait to get my poles, when I remembered I’d called the proprietor the day before, his number was in my phone memory. A quick call and he was there in 5 minutes, unlocking the door so I could reach in and retrieve my walking sticks.

Hold on to those poles, I told myself.

~ ~ ~

He stood to the side of the path and beckoned to me, holding out a small bag. “Would you like an olive?” he said, “I just opened them.”

Always accept small gifts on the Camino, I’d been told. So I reached in and pulled one of the plump green olives from the package, trying not to put my sweaty fingers in the juice that preserved them.

“I’m Mark from Michigan,” he said. I hadn’t met that many Americans along the way, he reminded me how exuberant my countrymen can be. He thrust the small bag toward me again. “Have another olive.”

I’d been singing to myself all day, a kind of stream-of-consciousness name-that-tune, when one simple word could provoke an entire medley of songs. I took another olive, but held it in my hand while I sang to him one part of a song from Godspell, which includes the lyrics,Your wife is sighing, crying, and your olive tree is dying.

The song is actually a duet I used to sing, in spontaneous moments, with a good friend Dilts – we called each other by our last names as a form of endearment – his part fast and syncopated and my part slow and melodic. The last line of my part: When you go to heaven you’ll be blessed, oh yes, it’s all for the best.

Mark from Michigan looked me straight in the eye, just the way I’d looked at Puchero when he sang to me, for the entire song, which I did not rush through, but rather sang to him very deliberately, emphasizing especially the word olive, to nod my head at the cause for this melody.

“That’s beautiful,” he said, when I finished. “If I go to heaven, I’ll wait for you there.” I ate my olive, thanked him again, and walked on.

Singing that song had conjured up images of my friend Dilts, his wry smile and his dry wit. He died eight years ago, cancer took him before he could turn fifty. I carried him with me for several kilometers, vacillating between missing him fiercely but also laughing out loud at things I remember him saying and doing. A lasting image of him, still in my mind now: his smart-ass smile, one eyebrow raised and jubilant fist in the air. I had Mark from Michigan to thank for conjuring up that string of memories, all from one single olive.

~ ~ ~

I made it to León, after 20 days of walking, covering 450 kilometers. The very last leg, by bus, as I didn’t want the lingering memory of this stretch of the Camino to be the industrial suburbs of the city. I figure the day I walked on the Camino Baztanés from Urdax to Elizondo is like extra credit, and makes up for the sage decision to avoid the plight of an urban pilgrim. A friend, an avid hiker, had joined me for these last two days of walking. Even she agreed this was a better choice than to march through truck fumes and under highway on-ramps. I could see much of the Camino route from the window, so I followed the trail with my heart, even though my feet were on the bus.

We took a train from León to San Sebastian, and in the rush of getting off the train, I neglected to pick up my poles, which I’d meant to strap to my backpack, but hadn’t gotten around to it, as they were useful until the last moment getting on the train. I’d put them on the overhead shelf and when I pulled down my pack, I somehow didn’t think to grab them. In fact, I didn’t realize they were missing until we’d walked ten blocks through San Sebastian in search of our hotel.

I didn’t get upset, even though they’d carried me so many miles, even though they’d become an extension of my arms, and probably a savior of my back, even though I loved the little feet I’d bought to cover the noisy metal tips. I let them go. Not that I gave up: once we checked into the hotel, the proprietor was very happy to help me call the RENFE and register the loss in their records, just in case. The next day I visited the lost and found at the terminus, the same station where we’d board our train to Paris. There was no sign of them. They are in someone else’s hands now, but hopefully helping them to walk as well as they guided me.

I wasn’t paying attention. That’s when you miss things. But hadn’t I seen that coming?

~ ~ ~

Word passes on the Camino without texts or emails. The weaving that happens as you walk puts you in touch with different people over the course of a day. You might walk with someone for fifteen minutes and then pull ahead, only to run into them again a few hours later when you’d stopped for a rest at a village cafe. Or someone you hadn’t seen for days would somehow get in step with you again. In the meantime, they’ve walked and talked with others, and if there is news to share, it gets passed along. After Burgos, there was a rumor about someone who’d gone to sleep in the albergue there and hadn’t woken up. This wasn’t the first death I’d heard about during my walk: a 65-year old man had a heart attack on his very first day, going over the Pyrenees. The story told was his wife had died the year before, his Camino was meant to help him sort through it. Nobody I spoke with felt too terrible about it. “Perhaps he’d joined her,” they said, or “it’s not a bad way to go, walking the Camino.”

The amazing night I stayed in the Ermita de San Nicolas, after our feet were washed and our dinner was finished, my friend from Romania turned to me and asked if I’d heard about the man who died in Burgos. “You knew him,” she said, “I saw you talking to him.” She described him, but I couldn’t place him. She kept saying his name, but it didn’t register. “Yes, you knew him,” she insisted, “Mark, Mark from Michigan.”

I fell silent then, thinking about the lyrics in the song I’d sung to him, remembering our very brief exchange. Did I see that coming? Was it just another coincidence? That day, the day I shared his olives, I must have been paying attention to something.

If there is a heaven – and I’m not always sure of it – but if there is, I hope he’s there. I hope he’s met up with Dilts, who can sing him the other half of the duet. And if he is waiting for me there, well, I hope he knows I’m not in a rush.