Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Midweek Musing: the privilege of dreams

You have been in the UK for three years, just across the channel, you can't leave without going to France.



My sister's words to me, adding three days in Paris to her third visit to the UK during my three year stay here. Not sure if there's any significance to all those threes.

I studied French at high school and university, the better part of ten years, won the prize for top of the French class in Year 12, and have rather a lot of Eiffel Tower ornaments and haberdashery for one who has never seen it with my own eyes.
The bits of France I want to see on a longer stay would be outside Paris - Mont Saint Michel and Provence - but the capital is perfect for a quick 'hop' across to say I've been.

I mentioned the trip to Edinburgh friends who excitedly exclaimed we've been planning Paris for around then, too! So with a friend of one of those two visiting from the USA, we were five women whistling through town like a multi-(western)-cultural whirlwind.

The beginning was a little rough, up at 3am for a 6:20 flight that was then delayed '40' minutes (in reality, more like an hour); minimal signage and inadequate or plain inaccurate communication meant it took far longer for us to leave the airport than my seemingly well prepared plan had led us to expect. Together, though, we negotiated the obstacles and got where we needed to go to check in at the hotel - with its views of the Eiffel Tower from both rooms - and on another train out of the city again, to Versailles.

It bucketed down rain on us for exactly the amount of time it took to walk from the train station to the Palace, where we encountered a queue two hours long for getting inside (we discovered later that most other museums in Paris are closed on Tuesdays, the day we were at Versailles with all other tourists visiting the area at that time).
Just the gardens, we decided, and wandered happily through groves and past fountains, and stood in awe of the imposing Palais de Versailles, imagining ourselves members of the court, walking the gardens, sipping champagne, and being entertained by musicians.

Dinner was, of course, at a café on a Paris street corner, not far from the hotel.

Day two started early  - but not quite so early - with coffee and pastries at another street corner café (they really are on just about every one), before the Eiffel Tower. Tickets for le sommet (the top), queues for lifts past the first floor and onto the second where we transferred to another queue for the lift up the centre. Higher and higher it climbed, my sister and I resolutely looking straight out - not down - and reminding ourselves we have been higher (we've both, separately, visited the highest viewing platform in the world, the Toronto Tower). Photos, selfies, soak in the view and the moment. There's the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame. I am here. The metal is lighter than I expected, the footprint smaller. The city seems white, a different impression from any other city I have seen from above. Paris has been less daunting, more spacious, more welcoming than I anticipated. I feel not quite 'home', but certainly very comfortable here.


Descent, souvenirs, photos, coffees, then to claim our tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus we'd booked for two days and a boat ride. Boat first, while the sun continues to shine, we agreed. Glorious. On the Seine, under the bridges, past museums and monuments and cathedrals, the sun shining the whole time.

Actually, the rain started as we disembarked. It continued, intermittently, as we went for the bus, got lunch at another café (this one not on a corner), got back on the bus, and stopped at Notre Dame Cathedral. As we queued, a woman begging hurriedly rose from her knees and scampered away, but the gendarmes (police officers) caught up with her and took her away. She wasn't the first beggar or busker I saw entering police custody as we explored Paris.

Inside Notre Dame is as peaceful as it can be with all those tourists, mostly doing well to respect this sacred place, its prayerful purpose, and their fellow tourists. Occasionally a 'sshhh!' emanated from a staff member.
I was struck by my joy at seeing statues of Jean d'Arc; of course I studied her story at various times during my French language education, but perhaps she was the first example of a woman of faith, conviction, courage; the first warrior woman I really noticed as a young person. I was glad to see her.

At the Louvre, I was taken aback by how much smaller the glass pyramid is than it has been in my imagination. For some reason, the impression I had was that it dwarfed the older buildings, but in reality, the original buildings dwarf the pyramid so that it appears more like a piece of installation art, into which we enter, and from which we descend into the museum. I did not enter the exhibition spaces; I was tired, saturated by all I had experienced so far, and needed a moment to pause, and to be alone. Deb went to meet Mona Lisa, then joined me in the main hall, while the others took in a bit more.

Dinner this time was at a corner restaurant, and was a mix of delight as the sought after cheese platters were at last found on a menu, and disappointment at a fish dish that was not at all what Deb or I expected. Ho hum. Travel is certainly an adventure.

We took a bus back to the Eiffel Tower as the sun set, because not only is it lit up at night, but on the hour, extra lights flash like sparkly stars dancing all over it, and we wanted to see that up close. It did not disappoint. We had the idea of champagne while we did so, but hadn't encountered a shop on the way that sold any ... we were glad of the somewhat annoying pedlars who were wandering through the crowd with bottles for sale (and even had a couple of cups for us to use). So we got our bubbles to drink toasts to the Tower and the city, and finished day two in style.

Our final day began again with breakfast at a corner café - as it happened, the one at which we'd had dinner on our first night in Paris. Our waiter recognised us, and was disappointed to learn that we would not be back for dinner, when I replied nous allons à l'aeroport au jourd'hui. We spent most of the day getting the full tour on our bus, with a stop for me to pay homage at the Shakespeare and Company café and bookshops. We managed to get seats on the top deck to get great photos of the Arc de Triomphe as we drove all the way around it, and at the final stop, we disembarked and headed for the Hard Rock Café. It is Deb's tradition to eat here in each city she visits (when there is one, obviously), and buy a glass. It's such a fun way to celebrate her travels, and I've been able to share the meals and travels on several occasions now.
After lunch we headed up to Montmartre, for photos outside Moulin Rouge, and a sight of Sacré Coeur. I have a painting by Utrillo of a Montmartre street in the 1930s, with cafés and a view of Sacré Coeur, which was a gift from my Nanna for my 21st birthday. I can still remember her face falling a little when that was my choice, but she did not renege on her promise that I could have which ever one I liked. Utrillo, I have since discovered, was a favourite artist for her (she was a painter, too). I love the painting for so many reasons already, then; this having stood there myself plunges that love to new, embodied, depth.

From there, we needed the train to the airport, and when google maps once again frustrated and confused, we asked a local, who generously said, come with me. He then walked us to a point from which he could tell me, in French because I had replied to his English questions in French, to follow that road and it will be on your right. I was delighted over these three days to finally put my French to use, although many people would answer my questions in English, or if they spoke in French too quickly so I didn't catch what they said, would repeat in English rather than French. But I was mostly easily understood when I spoke, and having French helped me to negotiate travel, even though much signage was available in English (when there were signs ... for the station, only when you're already as close as a block away!).

I am again aware of the privilege I enjoy at being able to realise dreams, even to dream at all of such luxuries as visiting France on holiday. I had in mind the many, many, humans for whom such dreams are impossible amidst the daily struggle to survive war, poverty, violence, illness, life. I don't feel guilty - I paid significant costs to do this, more than I can afford financially, the chance to be present for a kindred spirit's ordination, and to join my best friend in Italy for her significant birthday later this year most likely - and I worked hard for the opportunity. But I am profoundly aware of the privileges a white, middle class, educated person enjoys, to be able to work towards dreams I have the option to dream because of the fortune of my situation. I have a community that values my contribution enough to support my living in Edinburgh, a hop away from Paris. I have a family that encourages my dreams, and invests significantly in helping me pursue them. I have no words for the remarkable generosity of my parents, with money, belief, encouragement, prayer, wisdom. They are remarkable. I am privileged.

And it is not entirely luck, or chance, I think; it is a lot of hard work and sacrifice from generations of my family that led us here. I do not take this for granted. It is hard-earned. I am grateful.

Three years in Scotland, three visits from a sister, three days in Paris. I've spent all I have, but I have the privilege of enough, and the choice to spend it realising dreams, making memories, cultivating generosity.

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