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London and Paris Postcard

December 1997

Jonathan Young

Jonathan Young, by the Seine, Paris 1997

Dear Ones -

Paris fills my dreams. It was a brief visit to launch a New Year but the spirit of the City of Light managed to catch my imagination completely. The excuse for the trip was weak but who requires a good reason to go to Paris? I needed to be in London to explore a teaching invitation and learned that my sister Andrea and her children would be visiting Paris -- so, the plot unfolded.

Just before my departure date, word came that my mother had gone into the hospital and was not doing well. At 89, she had been growing weaker for months, so the setback was not a complete surprise. In the intensive care, she had a tube to help her breath and was in great discomfort. Then, she had a series of heart attacks that finally took her away. I am grateful for the chance to be there to say that I loved her before she went. She had a great kindness in her nature. I believe that she is the emotional foundation of the warm feelings I have toward life and people.

London Bridge

So, it was in a mood of grief and loss that I took off just after the memorial service. She had taken me to the four corners of the world throughout childhood. Now this expedition started to feel like an homage to her legacy of travel.

London is a cold place to visit in December but there was only a little rain so I had mostly clear, crisp days for looking around. My little hotel room was like a monk's cell but I could see the dome of the great reading room at the British Museum from the narrow bed. At night, the glass skylight of the library glows. It is a comforting sight as I adjust to time shifts in the wee hours to look out at this emblem of the word, this temple of books.

British Museum

Twenty-five years ago, I entered that hallowed chamber to do research when I was in graduate school. I had an official pass to be a reader and sat at antique desks once used by the likes of Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw. I had all sorts of fantasies of becoming a great thinker.

Having ice cream in the theater reminds me of my mother. Actually, all sorts of little things are reminding me of her. We went to so many plays when I was little and that early exposure grew into a love of the theater. I find myself feeling gratitude for her many gifts. As I walk by the souvenir stands near Trafalger, I remember the last time I was here, she wanted me to buy her some postcards. There is no need to get postcards for her this time.

Grief seems to come on the installment plan. A lot arrives at the moment of loss and then payments come along as we can handle them. Little things spark memories and then the tears begin again.

Not all the remembering during the trip is about my mother. Travel to a favorite place brings all the previous visits that each mark a stage of the larger journey that is a life. I went to see Turner's paintings at the Tate Gallery that I haven't visited for a couple of decades. It brought back the thrill of discovery that came with that first viewing of his passionate displays of sunlight flooding into everything.

Seeing a Canadian friend for tea at the Savoy and a walk to Cleopatra's Needle took me back to an epic flirtation years ago -- with a woman I met in London who was from North Hollywood. Sometimes it really is a small world.

Globe Theatre

There are new discoveries too, like visiting the newly reconstructed Globe Theater that is now just as it was when Shakespeare staged his plays there -- and a visit to the Marx House to sit in Lenin's office at the desk where he wrote long before the revolution. Compared notes with the curator on the keeping of archives and the state of the few remaining shrines to socialism. She said that the Russians have closed the sumptuous Lenin Museum in Moscow. Glad I got to see it before they erased that bit of history.

Went to a lecture on Dickens' holiday writings at an old operating theater. The medical antique from the 1820s was recently discovered. It had been boarded up around 1860 and is just as it was when used for teaching during operations -- quite an intriguing time capsule. After the lecture, the staff brought out little mince pies and mulled wine. This tradition of the season was evident at many of the places I visited. England does Christmas with such charm.

This was my first experience of going through the chunnel to get to Paris -- now a smooth train ride of under three hours. Joined sister Andrea Knox and her two brilliant offspring, Ginger who turned 21 on New Years Eve and David, 19. He wants to go into theatrical lighting, especially for special events and theme parks. The trip was partly because he wanted to see Disneyland Paris to compare it with other such facilities -- in terms of the dramatic lighting effects.

Paris was a feast of museums and seeing the sights. Paris is a lover, always beautiful, sensuous, and beguiling. In one day, we took the boat tour of the city along the Seine, found Picasso's house and the Lapin Agile (his favorite hang-out), saw the sun set over the city from the steps of the Sacre Cour Basilica, and had crepes on the Champs Elysee.

Paris tunnel

Another highlight -- perhaps I should say lowlight -- was exploring the sewers. The sewers of Paris have figured prominently in numerous classic tales, such as Les Miserables, so it was a big event to see the ancient tunnels. They carry mostly drain water so they aren't as stinky as one might imagine. They are a whole secret labyrinth beneath the streets. Many have walkways alongside the canals so it is easy to see how they served as escape routes during wars and other dramatic moments in French history.

Princess Diana tunnelA more recent event has sparked an impromptu memorial. A model of the new torch on the Statue of Liberty adorns a small plaza near the Seine. It just happens to be above the traffic tunnel where Princess Diana and Dodi ended their lives. The spot has become a place of remembrance as people bring flowers and notes in tribute to the pair. There is a constant gathering of admirers standing in a quiet circle. The golden torch seems somehow appropriate, given Diana's abundant idealism and altruism.

Torch of the Statue of Liberty, Paris

On Sunday, I went to Mass at the Madeleine, but the small adjacent park where I had spent many afternoons as a child is gone. Playing in that park with my mother is my earliest memory of being abroad. I was four. At the moment, the area is all temporary structures that serve as offices for a big construction project. It is not clear whether the little park will ever return.

Saw a musical on the life of Edith Piaf, the little sparrow. It was the perfect show to see in Paris -- on the stirring tale of the poignant singer who rose from a childhood in her grandmother's bordello to become the rage of the forties. Her songs are considered trite by some music critics, but I find them moving.


Of course I had escargot at a tiny restaurant in the Latin Quarter on the left bank. My niephlets got amply grossed out as I ate the tasty snails. By the way, that word, niephlet, is my personal contribution to the English language. If one can group brothers and sisters into the word siblings, it seems to me that there should be a word to group nieces and nephews, hence neiphlets (pronounced nee'flutz).

We had just a day and a half together in London. As we all headed back from theater on New Year's Eve, I got to talking to some local girls in the back of the double-deck bus -- and got thoroughly distracted. I didn't notice that the bus had veered away from the direction we wanted. We all ended up out on Waterloo Bridge where we chanced upon an enchanting panorama -- the city from the Thames. It was a crystal night and the exquisite dome of St. Paul's Cathedral was brightly lit as it loomed over Fleet Street. Looking the other way, the gilded Houses of Parliament were bathed in enough light to dazzle locals and visitors alike. We finally had to walk a good stretch along the river to a tube station in order to get back to our hotel -- but that sight from the bridge was well worth the extra hike.

Jonathan Young, London 1997

As midnight approached, the police closed Trafalgar Square and the other central parts to traffic and the whole area became absorbed by the revels. I saw the New Year in at Piccadilly Circus where at least half the college students in the world had come to carouse. Many blew police whistles, creating the necessary sense of chaos to mark the break in time. The ancients believed that there was a moment in such transitions that allowed spirits to enter from the underworld. That is why the ritual celebration of the shift from one year to another customarily includes an element of mayhem.

The trip was a flurry of spectacles. The heart of the deal for me was getting time with my marvelous niephlets. Of course, we did way too much in the days we had -- but there was so much to explore! I return to quiet Santa Barbara to rest up from the adventures of the vacation.