L’art de Vivre – the art of living – is not just a pleasing French expression; it’s a building block for a sound life . . .
Above all, slo-o-o-ow down. Spend hours in cafes lingering over un café, make a habit of making unplanned stops, hop on the ‘l’art de vivre barge’, and surrender to the play of light as the Impressionists did. Rick Steve
Sometimes it’s the unexpected packages, the ones you didn’t order when you signed up for the trip, the ones that aren’t dressed in fancy ribbons and bows, sometimes it’s these packages that hold the gifts that linger and have lasting impact. Sure, New Year’s Eve was special. Cam and I had flown across the Atlantic, through the last hours of December 30th, over Iceland and England and into the drizzly mid-morning of Grand Paris on the last day of 2011. Sure it was special, walking along the banks of the Seine as late afternoon tipped into evening and the lights danced in pinks and golds across the water’s swirling surface. And what could be better than tromping along the Champs-Elysees and the cobblestone streets around the Concorde and the Place de Madeleine, gazing into the glittery windows of designer shops and the patisseries filled with impossibly decadent French pastries?!? And there’s nothing quite like it, to be leaning against the rails of an ancient bridge, with a statue of a goddess that you think might be Aphrodite beside you, and the barge ships filled with revelers passing below, and, in the distance, the magical icon that almost doesn’t seem real to your misty New Year’s Eve eyes – the Eiffel Tower. And it is a sight to behold, to be standing in the plaza beside the Ferris Wheel, an hour or so later, with thousands and thousands of well-wishers, cheering and whooping and ushering in this new year, 2012, as that tower, the one that you’ve dreamed about since you were a little kid, lights up, sparkly and glittery and over-the –top sensational. Paris is noon-day vibrant in the wee hours of a new year, and that is a gift worth unwrapping.
And sure, it was a gift, all right, another whole day, the first of 2012, to frolic on Paris’s streets and boulevards, to explore the hidden treasures in alleyways and courtyards that don’t make it onto your big map of the city, and then to check in to a boutique hotel in your favorite district, the St. Germain, the part of Paris where your friends, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein, hung out in cafes and talked of whatever writers talked about in the nineteen-twenties. And it was a fancy-wrapped package, indeed, the venture across the bridge, to the other side of the city in the early evening, to the largest of the train stations, Gare de Lyon, to push through the throngs of people, under the gold-guild and muraled ceilings, to the ticket office and the long lines, to buy those two tickets for the next day, tickets on the fast train to Nice, the land of the artists’ light and the azure-blue sea. We unwrapped these two days in a flurry of delight, flinging fancy Parisian bows and smacking our lips in full-bodied appreciation.
It was the next gift, the one we didn’t expect, that stopped us in our tracks. Slow down, Rick Steve’s advises his fellow travelers as they allow in the gifts of France. Slow down. And that’s what happened; we slowed down. We stopped. Completely. First it was the knee. Twenty miles of fast-paced walking over two days in old Merrill boots that didn’t quite fit was too much for the guy’s usually nimble joint. It swelled up puffy and he began to moan. And before the gal could complain about his moaning, she, too, began to moan. And who would think a stomach flu could be a gift? But a gift it was. First the gal was sick, and then the guy, in their beautiful newly-renovated boutique hotel. And two days in Paris stretched into four, and the knee began to heal and the stomachs calmed themselves down, and the neighborhood became our neighborhood, and we, the guy and the gal, became a little more Parisian. I bought French pajamas, loungy and cotton with a touch of sparkle. Cam bought his favorite bread. We watched live on our boutique hotel room’s television as the women of the World Cup Ski Racing Tour slalomed and giant slalomed their way down the mountains of Croatia. And an evening of ski-racing on a television set while recuperating in the City of Lights, who would think that this was a worthy gift?!? But it was. We love ski-racing. And our American television set doesn’t offer this to us anymore, and it was a highlight, this lingering evening of sparkling water and French bread and swishing skis.
And, finally, on the fourth day of the new year, after canceling the tickets twice, we, the guy and the gal, were off, on the fast track, in the high-speed train, whooshing our way south to La Cote’ d’ Azure for twenty-four hours of sunlight. Except, we weren’t whooshing inside. We’d heeded Rick Steve’s advise, even if we didn’t unwrap the present willingly. We’d slowed ourselves down. And, this slowing down inside while on the fast train, it became the greatest of gift of all. We became friends with the Argentinean family who sat across from us. We gazed out the window, taking it all in, the farm fields and cream-colored saggy cows, then the green rolling hills, and the snow-covered Alps to our side. We gasped when we saw the castle on a hill outside of Avignon with the rainbow, brilliant and whole, wrapped perfectly around it – a gift ready for us to unwrap. We were in sync with each other. We were in sync with ourselves. And our hotel room in Nice, the one we finally found our way to, it was the fanciest room we had ever seen, or so it seemed to our appreciative eyes. And our dinner, the first full meal in days, at the tiny restaurant in the old part of the town, nothing could have tasted better than the freshest of market foods, chopped up raw, or slow-cooked to perfection, all drizzled in the local olive oils. And the Baie des Anges, the Bay of Angels – Matisse and Van Gogh, they had been right, it was as azure as they had painted, and the light, the light, it was magical. It was all a gift and we surrendered to it.