Greta, my younger sister, studied abroad for a semester in Grenoble. That June we met up in Paris and traveled by train around France trying different mixtures of ham, cheese, and bread.
Our destination was the Basque country, Le Pays basque, where we had a place to stay thanks to close friends of Aunt Florence who gave us the keys to an apartment and a large jar of duck confit. We’d go to the beach, listen to «Snup Duggie Dug» on the radio, and then pick up some groceries to accompany the duck.
We did a day trip to San Sebastián, Spain, but it was raining and we couldn’t go to the beach, and so we went to a restaurant.
I ordered the beefsteak for two smothered in mushrooms, but my Spanish wasn’t that good. The waiter didn’t understand. And so I drew a picture of a cow, with little mushrooms around the cow, and I said, “Por favor, para dos.”
“¡Sí Señor!” The waiter rushes out the door.
Where’s this schmuck going? Here’s the restaurant, there’s the kitchen, why is he going into the street?
Five minutes later, he comes back with two tickets for the bullfights and an umbrella.
Okay, yeah, that’s one of my father’s jokes. What are you, one of your mother’s?
“I have three kids,” Dad would say. “One of each.”
My older brother Eric, my younger sister Greta, and me. We heard my father’s jokes so often that we assigned each one its own number. Eric walks down the stairs and says, “Hey Ivan, two-hundred-and-sixty-two!” I reply: “You don’t know how to tell a joke.”
We left the Basque country on a train to Lyon, where my sister was to disembark to gather her things in Grenoble and fly home. I was to continue for a solo weekend in Paris.
It was an overnight train. Sometime in the middle of the night, Greta’s ears perked up at an announcement. She went over to the conductor.
«C’est le train pour Lyon?»
«Lyon? Non! C’est le train pour Rome!»
While we were asleep, our train had stopped. The railcars for Lyon were disconnected from the railcars for Rome. The two smaller trains went their separate ways, and we were on the wrong train. To retrace our tracks, we had to sleep on the floor of a rural train station and then figure out multiple early-morning transfers.
I was very impressed with Greta’s conversational abilities in French. Not only did she hear that we were heading in the wrong direction, but she was able to set things right.
Meanwhile, I was still working on basic greetings.
I still hadn’t learned much about French culture. All I knew was that a handful of American celebrities were widely admired in France: Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Snoop Dogg, Jim Morrison.
And it turns out that they also knew about Frank Sinatra. One night on the Atlantic Coast, Greta and I were in a restaurant with an outdoor courtyard, not many people around, just a few tables. Someone had a guitar. I borrowed it for one song: “Strangers in the Night.” The French love their ham and cheese, and so I hammed it up with a large helping of cheese. But for some reason it didn’t come across as cheesy. I watched as one couple began holding hands. They stared into each other’s eyes. They had a tender, romantic moment brought on by my performance.
What’s happening here? At the Jersey Shore, a Sinatra serenade would be all irony and cliché and cynicism, but at the other side of the same ocean, that same song was exoticism, mystery, and romance. Perhaps this was the secret of Jerry Lewis in France, that no amount of ham and cheese is too much ham and cheese. I did one song and that was it. I had never done that kind of tableside serenade before and haven’t done it since.
I wonder: What would happen if some French kid were to start crooning Charles Aznavour songs on the boardwalk at Wildwood?
When we were growing up, there was always some yard-sale guitar sitting around, nothing fancy and I don’t ever remember changing the strings, but still I learned how to play some chords and noodle along with the radio.
The first instrument I ever bought with my own money was a Yamaha steel-string guitar purchased midway through my second year at Carnegie Mellon. I started practicing in my room at the fraternity house. Joey D, who played the drums, heard me singing an off-the-cuff song over parallel Maj-7 chords, and suggested that I break out the guitar during a party. He said I’d get lots of action.
I tried it that weekend, just sitting in the living room strumming and caterwauling that very same song from earlier in the week. But after 10:01 on a Saturday night, I became completely invisible, or worse, entirely visible but giving off the odd, discordant vibes of a crooner at a disco. That was the end of the experiment.
These are the lyrics, in their entirety:
Love, love, love
From the heavens above
Won’t you stay with me awhile
I want to hold you in my arms, child.
Girl you KNOOOW I love you
And that I’m feeling blue
Love, love, love (repeat)
That’s some Jim Morrison-level poetry right there.
True story: The reason I joined a fraternity, maybe not the only reason but the deciding factor, what made it seem like cosmic fate rather than a rational decision, was that I was rushed by a senior named James Morrison. I was a huge fan of the Doors. I knew every word of every one of their albums, even Other Voices and An American Prayer. But not Full Circle, just because I’m a fan doesn’t mean I’m obsessed, okay? So Jamie M was more Apollonian than Dionysian like Jim M, and Jamie M was training to become a Navy officer, more like Jim M’s father, Rear Admiral George Morrison. That means in our brotherhood lineage, I was the Jim M, you dig?
Before long, I ended up walking around wearing a leather jacket, carrying a guitar, and writing bad poetry, just like Jim M in the early days, except that I had the charisma of Jim M floating in a Paris bathtub.
Hey, wait a minute, what am I doing in Pittsburgh? This train was supposed to be going to Paris. It’s all starting to get Proustian, isn’t it? I’ve never read Proust, but I have a pretty good idea of how it works since I wrote my master’s thesis using the narratological constructs of Gérard Genette, literary theorist of structuralism and author of Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, a treatise that describes a syntax for moving through Proustian time, across voices, shifting moods. Fous-moi, now I gotta read Proust? Yeah, in French, no less.
We had a little ditty that we’d sing when we wanted someone to CHUG a beer, and if you change just one word, you get this:
PROUST PROUST PROUST PROUST
Our fraternity’s unofficial motto: “Do it for the story.”
And now: “Do it for the blog.”
Greta knows all the Doors lyrics too. We could have a full conversation like this:
“The monk bought lunch.”
“Yeah, he bought a little.”
“Yes he did.”
“This is the best part of the trip, this is the trip, the best part, I really like.”
“What he say?”
In France, we’d walk around saying, I can’t remember why, maybe we were imitating someone, maybe we just liked saying it:
«Tout de suite!»
And now it’s time to get to the point. Tout de suite, maintenant.
Greta disembarked in Lyon and I continued to Paris. Headlong toward the long-imagined destination of my years-long pilgrimage. Rushing toward the climax of my archetypal journey. Anticipating resurrection and rebirth within my cherished idea of France.
And so, on that pleasant Sunday in June, I went to Père Lachaise Cemetery in search of Jim Morrison’s grave. You find it by following the helpful graffiti spraypainted on other gravestones, the wayfinding a product of tricksters and stoners, a labyrinth leading to the Tomb of the Lizard King. I paid my respects.
Outside the cemetery, I came across an outdoor gathering, a crowd of people playing bocce and eating and drinking. They had a magnificent spread on a few tables. I was rather hungry after my excursion. And so I turned into a chameleon and sauntered over, nodded at some folks, said «Bonjour, comment ça va?», and loaded up with lamb chops and other hors d’oeuvres. I found myself part of a gathering of the neighborhood chefs, enjoying themselves on a Sunday summer afternoon.
Next time, I’ll visit Proust and bring a guitar.