To Keep It Around Forever

My expatriate American friend Stephani and her children Seneca and Ukiah took the high-speed train from Stuttgart to Paris just to see me, which was humbling and amazing (like so many things have been on this trip).

It was not only great to see old friends, but I could tell both Stephani and I were happy to speak to another adult—a friend and an American no less—without thinking about it.

At some point, I lamented the news about French Toast (that the French have never even heard of it). Stephani told me that French Toast is a regional dish (meaning it’s only eaten in certain places) and it’s called Lost Toast because typically it’s made with leftover bread (and some people look disdainfully on the American practice of making it with perfectly good fresh bread). When I later mentioned Lost Toast to my hosts, they’d never heard of Lost Toast, either. Thus: I am making French toast for them tomorrow for breakfast!!! I will report back on their mind-blown faces.

I told Stephani that my first impression of Paris was that, in one way, it’s like the Mission (a neighborhood in San Francisco) because it looks a lot better at night when you can’t see all the filth. “Absolutely” she agreed.

Stephani and her family have been living in the pristine cleanliness of Germany for a few years now. They once lived in San Francisco (in the aforementioned Mission) then moved to Portland (a migratory pattern I’ve told artists here about) and from there to Stuttgart.

I told her I occasionally think about leaving America because of the lack of universal healthcare and free quality education. She told me Germany just made school free all the way through university. Her kids have three teachers in every classroom. Health care is universal and basically a non-issue. It’s hard to imagine. It’s hard to imagine that it’s hard to imagine. It’s sad that Americans don’t see themselves as one people.

We went to the Eiffel Tower. Standing under it is an awesome spectacle. The scale of the thing is lost in photographs (even from a modest distance, the structure visually flattens into two dimensions). We took one of the funiculars that travels up one of the four massive legs. Ukiah and I marveled at the fact that it’s hard to find a right angle anywhere in the construction. It’s such a potent and glorious example of the way things were made in another time.

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The tower reminded my of something Gan once said. I was in the town of San Luis Obispo and I saw something that reminded me of the work we were doing on the book: hand-chiseled wooden beams in the roof of the old mission. You could see each chisel mark. I sent him a picture. He replied, “It just goes to show that when you take the time to build something by hand, people want to keep it around forever.”

From the tower you can see all of Paris. The city retains its old beauty in part because there’s a height limit for buildings—within those limits are fabulous structures and a decadent density.

The previous evening I briefly met an American who told me that French companies have to provide a specific set of benefits once they have over 50 employees, and for this reason a lot of them stay at 49. “It prevents growth” he said. I thought that was a beautiful idea.

Seneca wanted to see the river Seine, so I gave her a boost. We pointed at boats, parks, and cathedrals. She said she wanted to go to the merry-go-round below. So we took the funicular down.

I enjoyed the company of my friends for a few more precious hours. We stopped by a chocolatier and ate chocolate covered cherries, and drank coffee and chocolat. Stephani speaks excellent French. I gave her a copy of Les Aventures D’Ultra Chomeur and dedicated it to her and her family. We said our goodbyes at the Gare de Paris-Est (a gorgeous old train station filled with these stunning bullet trains they have in the first world).

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From there, I went underground and took the Metro.

The Paris Metro is a beautiful disaster. A catacomb of confusing tunnels. Stench and ancient disrepair. Signage that seems to have been made with no regard for where it would be placed. But I will give it this: Using tires instead of the usual metal train wheels was a stoke of genius. It’s a much quieter ride than ear-piercing MUNI in San Francisco.

Also, on the Metro I caught a fleeting glimpse of probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in France: an entire underground station made to look like the inside of an old submarine, with copper-covered walls and little round windows. It was another occasion to admire the French dedication to making things beautiful.

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