Paris ping-pong

So it’s back to Paris I go. After a foolish flirtation with a week-long trip to Ireland, which went as far as booking a flight, hotels and tours, I dithered again and scrapped the whole damn thing.

My fall travel plan was initially for Paris, which I booked early summer. Then I got cold (Covid?) feet and thought: Hm, I’ve been to Paris plenty of times, let’s try something virgin and verdant. Ireland! Odd, as I’ve never had one inkling of an urge to go there. Still, I traded my Paris flight for a Dublin one and away we (almost) go. 

And then I dove into my usual rigorous research, combing and poring over books and sites about the land o’ Guinness guzzlers (evidently not a cliché, at all) and after each tepid tourist “gem” (the insanely popular, intensely lame Guinness Storehouse) and middling tour (the Jameson whiskey distillery), my heart began to sink and I was like: shit

I was even hard pressed to find any restaurants worth a prized reservation in Dublin and Galway, my two destinations. What came up repeatedly and endlessly were pubs and pubs and pubs. And it hit me: I don’t even really like pubs, what with their rowdy regulars, garrulous gulpers and sports super-fandom. Dublin and its kinda interesting cathedrals, fascinating-for-about-14-minutes Book of Kells library and three million pubs fizzled fast. (Let’s not forget Enya.) 

Paris suddenly looked magical, marvelous, as it always does. Dublin dumped, I swapped back my flight to Paris, where I’ll spend eight days in mid-October. I’m staying in the chic, foot-trafficky Le Marais, eating fine cuisine at Buvette and beyond and cruising quays and cobblestone to my favorite museums and bone repositories, from the Catacombs to the oceanic Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Just booking the trip was its own journey. Oh, the fun, fickle planning of the neurotic mind. My impulses are famously rash — watch me shop online, and weep — and when I’m bitten by something that seems fantastic, I swoop into action, Visa in hand. That of course leads to the occasional snap judgement. Like Ireland. 

With that, you might say I’m depriving myself of a new experience, a land of uncharted wonders and bottomless brown suds. But I argue I’m saving myself from groaning mediocrity, eye-crossing tedium and the deflating effect of the chronically underwhelming. (Here I risk rousing the “ire” in Ireland.)

I’m certain Ireland has its charms and delights. But it’s not for me, not now. Paris is my place, an almost mythical destination — the art! the food! the bookshops! the cinemas! the river! the boulevards! the gardens! — that fairly twinkles. 

The City of Light makes me lightheaded.

4 for fall

1. Au revoir, France — hello, Ireland? That’s how it looks right now, especially since I’ve swapped my flight to Paris for a ticket to Dublin. So I guess I’m going to Ireland in October (insert a wee leprechaun kick). Or I think I am. The tyranny of the pandemic can upend everything, so while Ireland has relatively open tourism guidelines, things can change in a depressing snap. I scotched Paris because France’s Covid rules have become groaningly prohibitive — très crappy. I’m not torn up about it. I’ve been to Paris a few times, but this purportedly worldly traveler has never made Ireland. Frankly, it hasn’t lured me to its bucolic charms: rolling green hills, craggy ocean cliffs, mossy castles, obsession with pubs and, suspiciously, Guinness beer, minor museums and churches. It’s been on my index of non-bucket list destinations (including Australia, Iraq and pretty much anything Caribbean) until now. What clicked? The idea of something far and uncharted (and not tropical). Focusing on Dublin and, briefly, Galway, it will be a mellow journey, eight lolling days of food and drink, mild tourism, immersive history and lots of questionable Irish music. If I really get there, I’ll be lucky, charmed.

2. With uncluttered elegance, the film is called “Lamb, and it will chill you to the bone. Coming October 8, it’s described by hip indie studio A24 as “Icelandic folktale on top, Nordic livestock horror on bottom,” and it flows in the vein of A24 creep-outs “The Witch” and “Midsommar.” This one, by Valdimar Jóhannsson, is about a childless couple adopting a creature that is neither lamb or human: a sheep has given birth to a hybrid animal that has the body of a baby and the head of a lamb. Watch the trailer here. It’s unsettling. It’s eerie. It’s glorious.

3. I’ll take sweaters over sweat anytime, and I cherish every cool breeze that cuts through this soggy, sloggy summer. Let’s call it a wrap. I have things to do this fall and the chaotic weather, be it soak or scorch, is proving a deflating victory for climate change. It’s time for 50s and 60s and the end of wildfires, heat waves and floods. Yes, I hate summer, but no season’s perfect. Even autumn, the best of them all, has its pesky drawbacks, from confetti storms of leaves and Mandalorian costumes on Halloween, to football and corn mazes. We can deal.

4. And we curl back to Dublin, via Irish author Sally Rooney, whose new book “Beautiful World, Where Are You” arrives September 7. A globally celebrated wunderkind for her twin novels “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends,” both written before she was 28, Rooney returns to her familiar milieu of middle-class millennials swirling in career, interpersonal and libidinous distress. Couplings and uncouplings of bright young things juice the story and, if her other books are any indication, things will get hot. And bothered. A Rooney fan, I’m looking for artistic growth in the new novel, her longest yet. Rooney’s not the most assertive stylist, her stubbornly lean prose tweezered of metaphor. In a 2019 post, I concluded that “Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature.” That said, they’re nourishing and human, and I’m banking on “Beautiful World” to be a frothy palate cleanser after more vinegary fare this summer. Then, for some tang, I’ll grab E.M. Cioran’s self-explanatory “The Trouble with Being Born,” and the world will sleep well again.  

I plan for Paris. Covid laughs.

Last fall, Paris went kaput. That is, my planned trip to my favorite city was scrapped with a muscular assist from the pandemic. Covid, that magnificent killjoy, effectively squelched the October vacation, along with so many of your precious plans to get out and live life freely and safely. 

Woe is me. I know this is a first-world, big-baby complaint, but actually I’m not complaining. The trip was doomed from the start, founded on chutzpah and delusion. The pandemic would pass by October. Right. What a dope.

But I couldn’t resist the $430 round-trip flight bought last spring and the airline’s policy of crediting the ticket if trips were cancelled by Covid. Considering how grim everything was, it was sort of win-win.

I used that credit yesterday when I decided, rather rashly as usual, to take another shot at Paris in the fall. It cost a little more money, but the price was still right. Eight days in mid-October, starting where I left off during my last visit in fall 2015. 

Paris is slowly stirring from its Covid coma, when life was hamstrung by onerous rules and restrictions that made visiting pointless, if you could even get into Europe. I’m banking on more normalcy in the next few months as cafes, museums and bistros cautiously unlock their doors. (Alas, Notre Dame remains closed to worshippers and tourists after the blaze of 2019.)

Notre Dame, fall 2015

Must-dos: Musée d’Orsay; Musée Picasso (essential); Musée de l’Orangerie; citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies in Paris); Centre Pompidou; and the skull-crammed Catacombs.

This time, my sixth in Paris, I will skip my beloved cemeteries: the lushly rococo Père Lachaise and the more classical Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, which together house the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, François Truffaut, Susan Sontag, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Balzac, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Why visit cemeteries? Because they’re haunting and beautiful and, in Paris, they’re like strolling walks of fame for artists and intellectuals.)

Centre Pompidou, 2015

The Parisian foodie experience is paramount, and I have several places in my crosshairs: the peerless Frenchie; Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand; Buvette; and famed falafel joint L’As Du Fallafel in the Marais. For cocktails, it’s the vaunted Little Red Door — named one of the world’s 50 best bars for seven consecutive years — also in the Marais.

This all sounds super on paper, like most vacations do. The planning, the reservations, the advanced tickets, the accommodations (Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais), the raw, giddy anticipation. But it’s a crap shoot.

I’m all in. I’m ready to split this burgh for a few days, sip wine on the Seine, see an old Eric Rohmer film, walk the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens, skip the Mona Lisa, and be blown away by the city’s exuberant beauty. Again.  

I don’t know if I’ll actually get there. But I’m making a bid for it. For Paris, and for life. 

Flipping out for a photo

As I mentioned in a recent photo-centric post, I love taking pictures of kids I meet in my world travels. That’s because, I wrote, “They’re eager, giddy and attention-hungry, all the while laughing and bursting with curiosity, asking questions (‘Where you from?’) and grabbing at the camera with often sticky hands.”

I’ve taken plenty of pictures of Istanbul’s children, a panoply of poses, pouts and play.

Sometimes they’re happy, eager subjects:

Sometimes they’re playful:

Sometimes they’re artfully posed:

And sometimes they’re fledgling rebels, with a wee message for the dope with a camera:

This rapscallion is my kind of kid. There I am, popping my head out of my second-floor hotel room, presumptuously pointing the camera, and getting what I deserve — a little birdie telling me to go fly away, to take a flying f***. Brilliant.

Camera vs. camera

Confessions of a caveman: I’ve only been using my iPhone as a full-fledged camera for the past five years. Moreover: I’ve only had a mobile phone since 2010. Before that: strictly land lines. Living in the Pleistocene epoch is terrifically underrated.

I never thought I’d need a cell phone (raucous laughter), especially one with a camera. Since 2006, I’ve owned a perfectly snazzy, distressingly pricey digital camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, acquired for my world travels. 

With its professional Leica lens — as thick and round as a small stack of poker chips, not one of those budget pinholes — the camera separates itself from most Best Buy point-and-shoots. It also boasts manual capabilities, a 4x optical zoom, 10.2 megapixels and a 16:9 widescreen, among other visual gymnastics. It fits in my palm. It’s a good camera.

On a whim, I recently took the Lumix out of storage — that’s how resoundingly my iPhone camera had dethroned the fancier shooter: it was in storage. I had an itch to take more pro-grade photos and reacquaint myself with my trusty travel companion and its battery of bells and whistles.

Before I knew it, I was the greedy shutterbug I once was, seeking beauty and the bizarre, fascinating faces, stunning architecture, and getting in the crouch-and-shoot stance demanded of dogs and children.

First, I made portraiture of Cubby, a study in nappy nobility:

The cat, sleek and skittish, was next:

Outside I snapped this, whose boldface signage is probably telling me something:

Now some iPhone shots, taken in Tokyo, Paris and Istanbul:

OK, so the little Queen of Hearts-sized iPhone appears to beat the pants off the Lumix in this demonstration. And my phone is ancient — a good five years old, perhaps a model 7. But the comparison isn’t quite fair. I’ve walked about six blocks over a few days with the Lumix taking pictures, while I traveled many years and thousands of miles with the iPhone, capturing exotic, iconic locations. Of course I have a similar stash of fine Lumix photos snapped in Japan, India, Texas and beyond, like these shots taken in Nepal, Beirut and Turkey, respectively:

There’s really no contest. Both contraptions take quality pictures. I prefer the Lumix as my main device — it feels like a real camera, for one. iPhones do not. They feel like Kit Kats. I find them unwieldy, tricky to aim, and the shoot button elusive and unreliable. Still, they produce knockout shots that get increasingly superior with each new model. And they handily fit in your pants pockets. 

The Lumix, comparatively, is a Land Rover to the iPhone’s Prius. But it’s not all that bulky. Like I said, I can grasp it in one palm and jam it in a coat pocket like a pack of cigarettes. It’s eminently portable. 

I’ll keep using both shooters for different occasions, the iPhone when I’m traveling ultra-light, the Lumix when I have more room and want more pictorial effects. Not sure which one wins, but it appears the race between cameras is the very picture of a photo finish.

Money can’t buy me love

When I was 14, gangly and clueless, a fellow teen approached me in line for the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster at Disneyland. She was cute, shy and giggly, and she slipped me a piece of paper the size of a business card. A shiny dime was taped to the card, which read: “Here’s my number and a dime, you can call me anytime.” 

Hot damn! 

(Less hot: I probably still have this ego-tickling keepsake. What a sap.)

(Lesser hot: The lass was surely carrying several cards around like a rod and reel, fishing for quarry at a teeming amusement park. The indignity.)

If only that’s how things worked in this era of high-tech, horn-dog delivery systems. To hell with Match and Tinder, just hand me your card with a proposition and I’ll take it from there. Prepaid to boot, though I’m sure a dime won’t slice it anymore. Tape a fifty-spot to it and we can talk. 

Though I prefer the above messaging — or, equally effective, the hand-passed mash note in Spanish class — I have resorted to dating sites, if only thrice, to make my intentions known. Each time was met with lavish failure. They just didn’t work out, making me a member of about 20 million date-site suckers.  

There was the young woman on Yahoo!, a dark beauty with cotton-candy cheeks, who advertised herself as an inveterate reader and energetic world traveler, only to prove she’s a deft fabulist and convincing embellisher. 

We met up for drinks and jabber. I asked what she reads and she said Harry Potter (watch my face drop). I press. No, just Harry Potter. We never discussed what I’m reading. Travel? She’s been to New York, once, with her mother. And Canada. The tryst was a bust. Even more so, as she’s a fiend for top-shelf vodka. 

Later, I tried trés-hip hookup hotbed OkCupid. I contacted two women. My gentlemanly overtures — the meek shall not inherit the earth — fetched zero responses. I had no idea what I was doing. Still, I was crestfallen for about 17 minutes.  

I believe in fate, kismet, stuff happening for a reason. Actually I don’t, but stick with me. I had a distant, tormenting crush on a woman who worked at the local arthouse cinema. She didn’t notice me. 

One day, at my favorite outdoor cafe, I spotted her (alone, gripping a Hermann Hesse paperback; be still my beating heart). As if the heavens split, she saw me and we exchanged incandescent smiles. I wish, right there, I had a business card that said, “Here’s my number — just call me!” 

Forget the goddam dime. Life is cheap, and short; love’s even cheaper, and shorter. Loose change has no place in this picture. (I later learned that this melting vision, named Laura, didn’t own a cell phone, just as I didn’t. I should have handed her the card with a roll of quarters and a money order.)  

I was paralyzed, besotted, nerves ajangle. So close, I thought. Make a move, putz!

I shot her a few more smiles, and, helpless about what to do next — approach her? sure! — I got in my car. As I pulled away, we made final eye contact, smiled and waved at each other. I ached with yearning, dramatically misty-eyed.

That’s because this was the classic, tragic missed opportunity. And yet with some tactful sleuthing, I figured it out: I discovered her name, got permission to call her (trusty land line), and soon wound up at her place watching “About a Boy” on VHS. We were a solid couple — books, travel, beer — for more than a year. Not an epoch, but enough time for the earth’s plates to shift.

Success, without a dating service, without a dime taped to a brazen call-me card, without exaggerated CVs and eye-fluttery flirtation — it happens. And it’s the only way I’ll play the dating game. Chance, fate — I don’t believe in them. But sometimes, rarely, it all falls into place. And I cherish that, for it’s no dime a dozen.

Easter not so easy

We rummage about the day, seeking a good book, ambient pleasures, deep meaning (why is that dog squatting so?), and a fine, frothy whiskey sour. The last first, please.

The days are long, the books are long — like the 600-page Mike Nichols biography I just polished, with joy — and the drinks are long, or, more precisely, tall. Either way, pour. Now. 

Temperatures are amping to the mid-60s, heralding spring’s ominous simmer and summer’s damp, gaseous inferno, both of which, I need not tell you, I abhor. (I only partly exaggerate when I say my favorite utterance is brrr. My second favorite: “I’ll get that.”) 

For some, who I will surely offend, today is all about the embarrassing folly of Easter (Jesus, the great escape artist — a Holy Houdini!), celebrating that boulder-rolling feat of celestial sorcery so magnificent it befits a children’s picture book, ages 2 to 5. And, somehow, the whole zany thing — the tomb, the missing body, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit (insert spit-take here) — boils down to Cadbury’s ooze, Peeps’ chews, synthetic grass and ham. 

What would Jesus do? Probably puke, like most of us.

So hallelujah. Now onto cursing: It’s a sunshiny Sunday, blue and bold and obnoxious, just what everybody delights in, because isn’t life one grand fairyland, dusted in gold, roofed with rainbows and burbling with birdies? 

Actually, it is pretty nice out, for now. I just dread when the sun-worshippers get greedy, Mother Nature listens, and everything gets hot and ruined. (Dear October: Step on it.) Look, get your unflattering beach garb, go to the tropics and leave the rest of us alone. 

Travel. Now? Right. I should be in Paris. But while I’m freshly vaccinated for Covid, France is redoubling its pandemic shutdown. The place is a festering contagion and no one’s going in or out. I bought a flight to Paris in March 2020 for an October trip, and we know how that ended. We sit. We wait. We read 600-page artist biographies. 

Or we read (and re-read) short story collections, like Joy Willliams’ delectably edgy “The Visiting Privilege,” Tobias Wolff’s comfort-foody “Our Story Begins” and the tough, granular realism of Richard Ford’s “Sorry for Your Trouble.”

Art saves. Sort of. I have a birthday coming up and no book of short stories will blunt the bite. Yes, I’m at the point when birthdays make you scrunch up your nose. I’ve been doing this for years; the last time I actively celebrated my birthday was age 13. I believe in getting older as much as I believe in Christ’s Penn and Teller routine in the desert. 

Started as a random riff, this is turning out to be my annual jeremiad about changing seasons, warming and wilting. This week I add a year, perhaps finally becoming an anachronistic artifact, shriveling like a vampire in slashing shafts of sunlight.

I need a flotation device in this sea of self-pity. More to the point, that whiskey sour is sounding pretty terribly perfect right about … now

Symptoms that flu away

Today I got my second Covid vaccine. I’m bracing for a world of agony.

This I know: My sister-in-law got both shots. The first was fine. The second flung her into a tailspin of flu-like symptoms — chills and aches, fever and mild nausea. She wished she had taken the next day off from work. Suddenly a knitted blankie was her BFF. It made a sweet, snuggly tableau.

Her first shot yielded the same aftershocks as my first shot: a wrathfully sore upper arm, like you were punched good and hard where the needle jabbed in. And then someone pinched the spot, with evil passion. 

It’s the second shot, my in-law warns, that will “knock you on your ass.” Cute. Can’t wait.

All this is expected. Docs and the CDC have sternly cautioned that these side effects are common. So this isn’t one of those cockamamie anti-vax screeds. I want the vaccine. I know it works. I think everyone should get it. I’m just a little whiny poo-poo baby.

In Vietnam, I was practically asking for some florid flu-like side effects. Take me to a good cobra restaurant, I hounded my hustler guide, who zipped me around Hanoi on a rust bucket moto-bike to see all, from Soviet-style architecture to a dirty dog-meat market.

He delivered me to a roadside snake farm/restaurant, where slithering caged cobras and other “wild animals” awaited the plate. After cutting out the snake’s still-beating heart and drizzling its bile into a glass of rice whisky — which I was expected to guzzle, and did — the servers dished up a 15-course cobra lunch dazzling in its breadth. The feast is not for the faint of heart. I barely finished my portions. A forkful of exoticism goes a long way.

That night, as a reprisal for my snake-killing gluttony, I was hit with unmistakable flu-y symptoms, including fatigue, body aches and a swimming head. I was told later this was likely from trace amounts of snake venom I ingested at lunchtime. So this, sorta, is what being bitten by a snake feels like? I wondered with weird relish. (What’s worse, swallowing a whole cobra heart or being bitten by said snake? Chat among yourselves.)

Cobra feast

Afternoon report: Four hours after today’s vaccine and I have zero symptoms, not even a sore arm. My sister-in-law strongly suggests I take three preemptive Advils and I do just that. I sit down, crack a book, and await the plague.

The needle wasn’t bad today, though it stung more than my first shot a month ago. Was the first needle smaller? The nurse today told me to take a deep breath when she pricked me, which wasn’t the case last time. On that occasion the needle lanced a stick of butter; today it jabbed raw chicken breast. Now that I’ve wrecked your dinner plans, let’s see if the vaccine is wrecking my evening plans. 

Evening report: It’s now eight hours since the shot. No chills, aches, stomach turmoil or brain tumors. And my arm is miraculously not sore. Am I getting off easy? Will I bolt up in bed at 3 a.m., drenched in sweat, racked with medieval pain? Oh, I did forget to mention this small side effect: My post-shot pee smells like a raging tire fire.

In about two weeks, after the vaccine has sluiced through my veins and cells, I will be immunized against the coronavirus. That’s the plan. If it works, and it will, it’s a miracle of science. Lab coats are sexy.

Late evening report: It’s now 10 hours since today’s needle. My upper arm is pretty sore, right where I was stabbed. This incurable hypochondriac will have none of it. I can see it now: every noxious flu symptom crashing down on me in the next 24 hours. Here’s what I need: fistfuls of Advil, heaps of pity, and a plush knitted blankie.

I’ll update things if developments warrant it. Just know, if I’m in the ICU, I probably won’t be able to type.

Hounding the strays of Istanbul

With a camera trained at butthole level, the street dogs of Istanbul bustle across the city, romp in parks, negotiate congested thoroughfares, brawl, chase cats, gambol, loiter and partake in public humping. 

This is a day in the life of the Turkish city’s derelict dogs in the patient, panting documentary “Stray,” released today. The film is a quiet, lolling chronicle of both canine and human behavior — the mutual respect and tolerance is moving — done minus narration. With few dramatic accents, though alive with built-in pathos, “Stray” is almost uninflected — unvarnished life through a studiously objective lens. What is spoken comes from the pups’ playful pantomime.

I’m on good terms with the stray dogs of Istanbul, having befriended, pet and fed several during my four trips to Turkey. The hounds are plentiful in the rolling, seaside city and are protected under a no-kill, no-capture policy. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. One of my favorite canine pals wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

They get you like that, these streetwise mongrels. Locals are mostly kind to the wandering, well-behaved dogs, leaving out bones and food and, when annoyed by them, gently shooing them away from storefronts and doorways. It helps if you have a soft spot for animals. My mushy affection led me to feed and pamper the friendly hounds, which I happily photographed. More than just memories, the animals were also sweet, licky mood-enhancers, a pack of therapy pups just for me.

Here’s where to watch “Stray,” and here are some of my street-dog snapshots.

My good pal Red Tag
I fed them cans of tuna.
Red Tag, again

Turkey’s tots

This post might better be called “Turkey’s tots and tweens,” as it’s really a mix of youths I took snapshots of as I got lost in the serpentine streets of Istanbul. In my travels kids are hands down the most fun to photograph. They’re eager, giddy and attention-hungry, all the while laughing and bursting with curiosity, asking questions (“Where you from?”) and grabbing at the camera with often sticky hands. Below are just a few of those characters, ebullience, boogers and all.