Used to be a small notebook and a fist-sized camera were my best friends on my travels, each jammed in a coat pocket ready to record spontaneous events. I’d take florid notes in my notebook — usually a trusty Moleskin and always in blue ink, always — and snap shots with my Panasonic Lumix, a sleek digital wonder, like a geeky shutterbug rapt with the world.
Things change. Today I carry along a MacBook Air for writing and an iPhone 12 mini for photos, and of course it’s not the same. Instead of turning my weathered notebooks into lavishly illustrated, ink-splashed scrapbooks, slathered with ticket stubs, business cards, adverts and newspaper clippings, I now find a dark place in uncrowded bars and lobbies or my hotel room to type and record the day’s impressions in the glow of the computer. It lacks all the tactile fun and creativity of the notebooks, which exude an intoxicated brio, but it’s rather utilitarian, and right to the point. I no longer need Glue Stick.
The iPhone, I hate to admit, takes equal if not better pictures than the Lumix, so I miss little there. Plus it’s far smaller cargo to tote around. Like an Altoids tin.
But it’s the notebooks, those eye-popping documents of doodling, journaling and scrap-bookery that give me pause. I miss crazily jotting in them all that I saw, heard, tasted with a right-now urgency. They pulsed. Popped.
So why don’t I still do it? Sad to say I don’t have the energy for them anymore. I’m a more sedate traveler now. The last time I brought along a Moleskin was to Paris six years ago, and I wrote almost nothing in it and collected limply a few ticket stubs and scraps to glue in it. I’ve gotten a little jaded. And, erm, older. I don’t feel the need to rip out newspaper clippings or save little street flyers and stick them to the creamy blank pages.
But I still record and retain, with passion. The laptop keeps things throbbing. On my last trip, to Italy, I produced five live reports from the airport, the hotel bar, my room and elsewhere, with photos. I blogged them, something I couldn’t do with the chicken scratch of my paper journals and all their scrappy idiosyncrasy and improvisatory punch. They were page-bound, and hitting “send” or “publish” wasn’t an option.
Still, I can’t abandon the idea of a physical journal for one’s travels. If done right, with raging curiosity and a magpie’s eye for minutiae, the books make marvelous keepsakes and souvenirs, stuffed with facts and ephemera, a living gallery of the journey. They’re also a great repository for the names and emails of people you meet along the way.
Scribbling in bars and cafes frequently draws the attention of fellow travelers, who approach and ask what you’re up to. There you are, channeling the absinthe-tippling artists and philosophers of fin de siècle Europe say, or today’s hoary Brooklyn hipsters. It’s an art form, and it’s the best thing you’ll bring back from your trip. Swear.
Expectedly, knee-jerkingly, reviewers have stumbled over themselves to praise the foppish funnyman’s latest collection of personal tales (often tall), diary entries, cultural observations and social sniping.
Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, a humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll stories about his family, his husband and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides.
Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is baldly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed, determinedly unadorned, dare I say drab. (I said it.)
Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan — I’ve been there — he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees.
I’m pumped about Portugal. Barely back from Paris and already I’m poring over books and sites about Lisbon and Porto, legwork for a weeklong stay in mid-January, when I’ll probably get soaked by merciless rain (while temps hover at a balmy 58 degrees). Paris must feel like a betrayed mistress.
The flight, which cost less than a good winter coat thanks to an airline credit, is booked. Hotels, at seductive off-season prices, are booked. Two walking tours, including a Porto food tour, are booked.
I got back from Paris exactly one week ago. I am shameless, a monster.
Unlike Paris, London or Spain, Portugal isn’t front-loaded with blindingly spectacular sights and museums. It instead thrums with an old-world vibe, cobbly neighborhoods spread over San Francisco-y hills, views and plazas and churches and food, including unparalleled bounties from the sea, and of course the people. (My people. As mentioned before, I’m of Portuguese descent, though my ties to the country are tenuous at best. I’m a terrible ambassador.)
It’s a walking world, Portugal. I plan to amble, stomp and stagger through the country’s two biggest cities, with the very occasional — and very cheap — taxi for longer hauls. A picture says so much, and makes the heart do a jig:
Smarter, funnier, better looking and a brilliantly better writer — not mention an infinitely superior cook, natch — Anthony Bourdain and I still had a lot in common.
We’re both wanderers, seekers, a little profane and rough around the edges, smart-alecks, atheists, ironists and guiltless sensualists. We’re angry, fiery and melancholic. We’re easily bothered and bored, and don’t always know what to do about it, except, in many cases, hit the road.
And like him, for all my searching, I’m still not sure what I’m looking for. And I’m pretty sure I will never find out. Bourdain, a suicide in 2018, probably never did either.
This hits me watching “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a moving, multilayered documentary about the celebrity chef, author and influential television host by gifted filmmaker Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” another masterpiece).
Sure we had things in common, but Bourdain, in his books, shows and this remarkable movie, cuts a troubled figure, the classic brooding, almost romantic enigma who toggles manically between wonder and woe.
With his streamers of verbiage, buoyantly prickly charm, zeppelin-sized attitude (and ego), lanky strut, tats and designer shades, Bourdain was hipster as tour guide, a foodie philosopher, man of the world who was always just a little itchy in the role. He was the reluctant rock star — cynical, self-effacing — who still craved the glory, glamor, privilege and, alas, the drugs, including heroin, that came with it.
At his best Bourdain was an influencer before the term gained the narcissistic kiddie cachet it flaunts today. Before any trip, be it Toronto or Tokyo, I watch a rerun of “No Reservations” or “The Layover” to get a voluptuary’s feel for a city and nail down must-do destinations of plate and place. I’ll be rewatching his “Parts Unknown” episode about the food and culture of Porto soon enough. I trust him to steer me to the coolest and most coveted spots. He hasn’t failed me yet.
The programs, of course, are as much about the man as the places he visits. They’re about getting an earful, and a mouthful, from a dark, dazzling host who found so much joy between grumbles. He made the dangerous seem divine, just how I like it.
When in Paris, I always duck into the fabled Shakespeare & Company bookstore, smack on the Seine on the historically literary Left Bank, where Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and Sartre tippled and typed, spinning the blank page into eternal art.
Cramped and crowded with tome-seeking tourists, the creaky-floored shop, honeycombed with nooks, alcoves and twisty aisles, specializes in French and English language literature — no junk, just the good stuff. It’s not snobby. It’s just smart. And the English-speaking staff are unfailingly cheerful and helpful, stamping your book with the store’s inky insignia. It’s a pulp paradise, the kind that makes a bibliophile go a little mad with delight and desire.
I went firmly middlebrow on my recent pilgrimage, grabbing a paperback (it’s only available in hardback in the States) of Sally Rooney’s new novel, the wincingly titled “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” I cracked it immediately, reading in bars and cafes with a Chardonnay or latte on hand.
The Irish Rooney (“Normal People”) is a reliably breezy read, plainspoken, occasionally lyrical, but mostly succinct and pinched. Her control is impressive and her sturdy, confident voice makes you want to follow her wherever she’s going, which often includes naked people.
I just finished the book on my return from Paris and enjoyed it. It covers Rooney’s preferred topics — love, sex and friendship, yearning and ambition among anguished millennials — with detour discussions about Marxism and life’s unfathomable purpose. (Rooney, a wunderkind at 30, is a professed Marxist.)
Coming from the famous bookshop, it’s not only a winning read, it’s a fitting souvenir from that most bookish of cities.
The worst French onion soup I ever had was in France.
It happened last week at a cozy bistro in Paris’ hip Le Marais district, a minor hiccup, though major faux pas, amid a constellation of remarkable meals I savored during my most recent travel escapade — eight days in Paris, the greatest city on the planet.
I love onion soup, French style, but I never have it. Where do you get an authentic bowl? Well, try France. And so I did. Yet something went wrong. No, lots went wrong. The oily brown broth tasted OK — sweet, savory beef stock — but the onions themselves were pitifully scarce and, much worse, it was topped with small, stale, store-bought croutons and a grisly pile of clearly processed shredded cheese from a ziplock bag, cheese that was not Gruyere or Parmesan or melted.
I’ve had better onion soup in New Jersey. This was a disgrace. Only once, maybe twice, have I ever sent a dish back. I didn’t mutter a complaint about the soup. I didn’t want to shame anyone. Partly that’s because I also ordered escargot and it was pretty delicious — hot, plump mollusks drenched in garlic and olive oil. This was, of course, my purposely clichéd French meal. It had to be done, despite being a half fail.
But I don’t travel for the greatest bowl of onion soup (or do I?). I do it for the explosive newness, to be pried out of my home-addled head and relocated to the novel and exotic, to live, learn, experience. To find joy, or even fear. To escape the self and kick open doors. To move, move, move. To seek, discover. To be astonished.
Instead of my usual Paris haunt the Latin Quarter, I stayed in the aforementioned Le Marais on the Right Bank, a village of winding cobblestone streets, haute boutiques, LGBTQ cool, cafes, bars and trend-setting ambiance. It’s kind of fantastic.
As usual I walked miles around the city till my toes blistered. Transportation-wise, I eschewed the Metro and instead hailed Ubers and taxis. After years of scrappy, lo-fi travel, I felt I deserved the convenience and ease of environmentally devastating vehicles. I’ll call it what it was: shameful, privileged laziness. It was a marvelously stupid decision that cost me hours in choking traffic and hundreds of precious dollars. I get all sad just thinking about it.
But the destinations, after I popped from the cars with a chirpy “Merci beaucoup!,” almost always assuaged the grief and guilt. There were of course essential standbys — the Louvre, D’Orsay, the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the bone-encrusted Catacombs — but I added new spots to my well-trod Paris itinerary.
Like the avant-garde exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, where an impenetrable show by German artist Anne Imhof baffled and bored; and vaunted bistro L’Amis Jean, where I ate the most delectable rabbit and country vegetables and reveled in the festive atmosphere; and the dreamy Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at Centre Pompidou; and the itty-bitty restaurant-bakery Mokonuts, one of the hottest and hardest to get seats in town.
Run by an endearing if understandably frenetic couple — with no employees, they’re the chefs, waitstaff and hosts — Mokonuts is low-key gourmet all the way. I had raw scallops that made me smile so involuntarily, co-owner/pastry chef/showrunner Moko Hirayama burst out laughing. (The main plate, pink-fleshed pigeon, was equally amazing.)
Mokonuts is where I chatted with a middle-aged American couple about food and travel. They asked if I’d ever been to Lisbon, Portugal, and I said yes, I visited many, many years ago. (I’m of Portuguese descent, but that’s neither here nor there.) I found Lisbon to be like a giant, beautiful seaside village, suffused with languid, old-world charm. I relished it, but it didn’t leave teeth marks.
The couple perked up and replied that things have changed and they go there often for its food, people and invigorating bustle. Lisbon, I’ve since read, has become one of the most visited cities in Europe. My fellow travelers went on about it and inspired me to take a deeper look. The crazy result: I’m heading to Lisbon and Porto in mid-January. Expect a blog about sausage.
For the very first time in my many trips to Paris I did not see a classic American movie at one of the city’s numerous revival cinemas; no films (“An Affair to Remember” — pass) grabbed my interest, sadly. Yet I did take a short amble through my good friend Père Lachaise Cemetery, freckled as it was with fall leaves and dappled with autumn shadows. I sought out the relatively new grave of French actress Anna Karina, wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, with no luck. The place is massive. In fact I saw no celebrity plots — no Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf — on this visit. Yet I still found a baroque beauty in death.
As always seems to happen, I strolled by Notre Dame several times. The gothic vision oddly emerges out of nowhere almost anywhere you go. It demands your attention.
She is tragically transformed after the April 2019 blaze that tore her soul out and broke the world’s collective heart. Only the indelible, indomitable facade is fully visible, as the rest of the cathedral is girdled by a fortress of construction walls, webbed in scaffolding and towered over by spindly cranes. Depressingly visible are exposed wood planks on the flying buttresses and gaping maws in the charred rooftop.
The surrounding wall panels are emblazoned with photos and explanatory text describing the fire’s destruction and exactly what type of surgical procedures the ancient lady is now undergoing. It’s informative, and classy. People still come to gaze in awe, and the cathedral’s gargoyles still perch in the heavens, smirking, telegraphing in their way that everything will be all right.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exactly one week after Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, in 1997, I stumbled upon a sprawling ad hoc memorial for her just above the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, where the catastrophe occurred. My arrival was strictly serendipitous; I don’t even remember why I was in that part of Paris at that particular time. I was just a gawking tourist ambling along, probably whistling like an idiot.
Yet there it was, an ocean of bouquets, effusive notes and photographs placed by milling mourners paying their respects. It was September 6, the very day of Diana’s funeral, which was held at Westminster Abbey in London and finished at her resting place in Althorp Park, the Spencer family home.
My reaction to the spectacle was a rush of surprise tinged with ambiguous sorrow. Not for a moment had I ever thought about Princess Diana — or any of the Royals — before this chance encounter. I found their soap opera travails — marriages, divorces, deaths, births and betrayals — perversely overplayed and monumentally tedious. (Only the recent season of “The Crown,” featuring a star-crossed Diana, came close to holding my attention to royal hooey, and raptly at that.) Yet I was dimly moved, despite myself.
The Royals live their own fractured fairy tale, without the court jester (or is that Philip?). Drama, oodles of drama. The latest swirls around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s self-exile to shiny California and if I cared a whit I’d rewind to juicy bits about Fergie, Philip, Charles, even poor Diana, who was groomed for sainthood by an adoring public.
Why the undying interest in the Royal Family? Who are these people? They’re obscenely rich, for one, leading charmed if crushingly idle lives in monstrous palaces fit for, well, a king. Yet they’re only human, pitifully so. Their crises are legendary, fed to the public in a manner fitting congenital spotlight whores. Their reign serves no discernible purpose, rendering them privileged waxworks, oxidized totems of antiquity that just sort of sit there, performing the robotic “royal wave” to the glazed masses when not shooting skeet.
It’s a twisted phenomenon, the whole royal-watching rigamarole. And it’s hardly trifling. Google “royal watching” and you’ll get some 613,000,000 results. Compare that to a search of “Barack Obama,” who I’d argue is far more interesting and consequential, and you get a paltry 132,000,000 results. Then again, the British monarchy has been around since the 10th century. But still.
The American analogue is JFK and Jackie’s self-styled Camelot, that dreamy, idealized, media-genic Arcadia that spawned a (rather jinxed) political dynasty. Kennedy’s 1,000-day presidency in no way compares to the Royals’ 1,000-year run, at least in duration, but both are subject to fawning scrutiny by lovers and haters alike. The glamor and intrigue, triumphs and tribulations! It’s a tea-time telenovela, with two cubes of schadenfreude.
I guess that’s what gets us: human frailty played out on the public stage. It’s Shakespearean, irresistible, satisfying yet not so much. They’re our heroes and our villains; we spit-shine them with a loogie. Such empty-calorie ogling has been a pop-culture sport through the ages, whispered in gossip, screamed in tabloids. And it doesn’t require a king’s (or princess’) ransom. Talk, after all, is cheap — and royally seductive.
Speaking of stumbling on monarchy malarkey: In 2004 I chanced upon the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace in London, an irony-free shuffle of hollow pomp and frivolous circumstance. Since I just sort of materialized without a plan, I wound up unmoored on the street instead of obediently queued on the sidewalk. As you can see, the glaring horseback bobby was having none of it. Maybe he sensed my royal revulsion.
Oh, the quarantine is wonderful. I read, I write, I drum, I shop, I gaze at the floor. There’s my epitaph.
The shopping’s the perilous part, even though most of what I buy online are essentials I’d get at the store anyway: vitamins, shampoo, mountains of books — exhilarating. My purchases run in the $10-$20 range, except for the drum kit I mentioned in a prior post, which cost twice as much as my October ticket to Paris (that trip: never gonna happen).
Recently I went for another big-ticket item, if not super big-ticket. I bought some fashionable duds: expensive jeans, classy pants that, per historical weather patterns, I won’t be able to wear with a hint of comfort until late September. (For now I wear shorts. I do not like shorts. I look absurd in shorts.)
So I’ve sported the new jeans around the house, duly admiring them — the slim fit of the raw Japanese denim, the pleasing inky-blue hue, the so-called 4-way stretch, which means a dash of boingy material is stitched into the crunchy denim for optimum comfort, making unnecessary the small ordeal of “breaking in” fresh denim, which often requires rocks, whips and a blowtorch.
Buying stuff is a two-pronged sensation. It’s electrifying, scouring products, comparison shopping, finding gems, clicking “Place Order,” waiting for the arrival. Yet it’s all so fleeting. When it’s over, item delivered and in my hands, I die a little death, deflated, which is exactly when I should light up a post-coital cigarette.
But the more expensive items — the drums, the jeans, the cursed Paris flight (which was purchased in April) — resonate much more than, say, a three-pack of Colgate. Not because they’re pricier but because they are on a patently superior echelon, more novel, more enduring, more exciting. I love the drum set, I love the jeans, I love Paris.
None of it will save me. I shop, therefore I am — shrug. That’s claptrap, plain melodrama. At best I’m a half-hearted shopper in normal times, avoiding the antiseptic zombie shuffle of Muzak-y malls and largely being dragged numbly through shops and boutiques even in hip consumer hives like New York’s SoHo, an area I do like.
But stuff must be bought, from boxer briefs to Benadryl. And — why not — the occasional pair of rocking blue jeans. Yet the lockdown shouldn’t make us spendthrifts, but indeed the opposite: penny-pinchers. Dire times, etc. I’m working on that. Meanwhile, that sound you hear is me clicking my way down a rabbit hole of unbridled acquisition.