Bonjour & Merhaba (From Paris to Istanbul, with Airport Applause)

Paris 009The next day I sleep in. Something I’ve not done in awhile, no work deadlines or trains waiting.

147I grab my almond croissant and cafe. I set out on the Paris tourist circuit. The quiet cool Pantheon, the glorious Arch d’ Triumphe (break for a nap in the sun and grass in the Champs Elysees gardens), over to the Eiffel Tower, I walk home, to feel the strength in my legs and make the most of the sunny day.

I’m done seeing things, snapping photos–I just want to feel it now. Being in Paris. The fun part about not being in one place for too long: you never see the downsides, it’s all roses. And today has been glorious. I return to my little hotel room, exhausted.

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I grab a quiet dinner with my notebook and a glass of wine. A curious waiter looks after me, as I sit and scribble down notes, bits of moments and shreds of conversations, before they slip away forever. He serves me complimentary apertif and dessert, creme brulee. He compliments my French and asks polite questions about what I am writing.

Aside from my waiter, the hotel staff and only a few others, my limited French has been greeted more often with disinterest than not. The Parisians don’t play my game “let’s learn French”. It’s the only thing I don’t like, how hard it is to get through in French, only to be corrected in English, or ignored, only to feel like there was no point in trying. I hate that feeling. Especially after working so hard to learn the little bits and pieces I do know. I walk for a bit, through unfamiliar streets of charming neighborhoods, then finally make my way home.

Istanbul 021The next morning, I grab my last almond croissant and cafe and eat in the park by Notre Dame, watching the man who feeds the birds and let’s them sit on his finger while tourists take photos. Then make my way through Notre Dame and the hush of a Sunday mass.

It’s beautiful and thrilling to be inside a building so beyond description. Mass starts and the ancient halls reverberate with choruses and chants. Listening to it then, there, I felt like I could believe in anything. The ceremony continues behind me. Hundreds sit and rise in prayer. Hundreds others tip toe around them, snapping photos. I stop at Jean of Arc and light a candle, then leave.

An hour later at Orly, she looks at me incredulously. No visa? But you need a visa for Turkey. You cannot travel today. She snaps my passport shut and holds it out for me.

I’m sorry, what?

You must stay in Paris for two more days (because it is Sunday and the embassy is closed), get your visa on Monday then fly out on Tuesday.

There must be some mistake.

I’m sorry there is not.

OK, um…can you reschedule my flight, then?

I’m sorry, I cannot.

I feel sick, she is stone-faced. Two other agents come to her side, and stare me down. I retreat.

I sit. I smile sadly at the baby, sitting in the lap of a massive woman.

I text Namik the bad news. (How did I forget? I swear I don’t remember seeing this…)

I can’t get online. I start thinking about the next few days (hotel X 2 plus expensive taxi X 2 plus flight reschedule….)Istanbul 095

Namik texts me back: you don’t need a visa. you get it at airport in Turkey. Do I need to come and get you?

I jump from my seat, surprising the baby and her mother. I explain in pantomime and poor French that I wasn’t able to fly and now I fly!

Her and her neighbor applaud me and send French well wishes as I run back to the desk.

She glares at me. She calls her supervisor. They call someone else. We wait. There is only 5 minutes until checkin closes when they print my tickets and motion to the gate.

Without a smile or an I’m sorry, or just oopsies! I join a group of men and head-scarved women–so happy to be heading to Turkey, again. It sounds like heaven.

I pull out my Turkish dictionary (and retire my French one) as I wait in line, and realize I’m starting all over again.

Merhaba means Hello.

Bir means 1.

Tes….Tes….Tesekkür edirum means “Thank you…”

After starting the morning listening to choirs in Notre Dame, in Paris, I’ll fall asleep listening to muezzins chant over the microphoned minarets of Istanbul’s mosques. I make it to Turkey for one month of living, steps from the 14th century Galata Tower.

Paris, at Sunset

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The train glides through farms and cities, sunshine and rainstorms, good and really good songs on my iPod. Until I get stuck on two, over and over for longer than I’d admit to another human being: I listen to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”, mixed with Camera Obscura’s “James” because I heard both on Martina’s iPod, one familiar, one brand new, both I love. And because it reminds me of her and Rachael. And this makes me smile. (I try not to think of the effortless miles stacking between me and them, because it makes my eyes water.)

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I crack open the grocery sack of goodies that Martina had packed that morning. My French picnic: amazing chevre, nectarines, panzarella, and the awful raspberry cookies I like so much. Then. Finally, Paris.

In my head Paris is cemented, forever, as the city of my oldest sister, Mercy, because she went to live there when she was in college and I was in junior high (and could only dream of such daring adventures). She would send me postcards of gargoyles and flowers, and amazing stories of riding the metro and dinner of baguettes.

Now I’m here.

I wade through a mess of people to a cab to the little hotel room I’d booked the night before in St Germain. I grab my camera, my trusty backpack and set out down the street.

The first thing I see are the gothic spires of Notre Dame.

The second thing I see is the sunset. Liquid gold and rose against smokey-blue clouds. Ancient buildings take on all sorts of lovely hues and shades, as I walk and try to take it all in.

I was not prepared to like Paris. I mean, I knew we’d get along for a day or two. But to walk off the train into such an evening…

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I walk down the Seine, watching massive crowds of people move through the golden light, street musicians playing, history a cornerstone of every turn. A text from a friend of a dear Seattle friend buzzes my phone. (An attempt to meet up in Paris foiled by an ill-planned rental-car extension that kept me in Villeseque a day longer than planned.) But now his plans have changed and, of all things, kept him in Paris a few days extra. So dinner? Where am I?

It makes me laugh to text back: heading toward the Louvre. (The Lourve? This is my life. Really?)

He’ll be there in 15 minutes.I circle the empty grounds. Rain starts dropping so I hurry across the street, the whoosh of a bus, trying to remember what he looked like from the Facebook photos. I look up. And then there’s Ralph!

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Dramatically tousled white-gold-gray hair, scruffy beard, and absolutely charming manner. With experienced hands of a well-traveled soul and the entertaining encylopedic commentary  of one who will soon be moving to Paris, he guides me through Paris streets and metro tunnels.

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And it’s lovely to follow, to not think, just enjoy, to get completely lost in a big-city evening and know that I don’t have to watch my back, my location as we cross alleys, historical buildings, past serene fountains (where we pause to admire the view and are quickly employed by tourists needing photographers. After we each take our turns snapping shots for others, we get them to snap ours) then move on, settling in at a cozy but oh-so-trendy spot. Over dinner, mojitos and

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Facebook-jabs at the friend who made this all possible (Susan, lovely Susan) we talk, as the night life grows more amusingly trendy by the moment. Women in breath-taking short skirts, long lashes, steep heels, light up the sidewalks as they strut by. Men are just as amusingly decorated, hair perfect, dressed up to casual, but all are on display. It’s like a trail of peacocks, and we just sit back and enjoy the show.

Drink after drink the hours fly by as we talk about all the things you should talk about, in Paris, at an oh-so-cozy and trendy cafe. Life, love, loss, heartbreak, growth, failure, purpose, travel, questions…few answers…but it’s all fair game.

After his head was chopped off, Denis is said to have picked it up and walked ten kilometres (six miles), preaching a sermon the entire way, making him one of many cephalophores in hagiology. He is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church as patron of Paris, France and as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. The medieval and modern French name “Denis” derives from the ancient name Dionysius. (Wikipedia)

Perhaps because he knows my dear, sweet, trusted friend (Susan) and therefore is (by association) also instantly on a “dear, sweet, trusted” status or perhaps because I’d downed to many mojitos, or perhaps because he quickly oh-so-quickly zeros in on to a shared trait (that digs deeeep into most private thoughts, as I’ve watched myself crumple around the people I love the most, time and again) which I go back to that night and the next day and the next…

Istanbul 118_2(You and me, we’re people pleasers, bending over backwards to make the world happier, better, whatever….and we have to learn how to stop. You have to learn to live for your own happiness, you can’t be so stuck on everyone else’s. Or you end up getting crushed by what everyone else wants and needs, that we can never give them…You’re starting to realize this.)

Or perhaps because there have just been these thoughts and ideas swimming sideways and backwards for so long now waiting for the moment to escape the confines of my head after so many interesting weeks abroad — I find myself telling my Ralph, with his quick smile and flattering charm, so many things. Treacherous, hard, difficult things, real things. The strangeness of travel: of gaining so much, realizing (in very honest terms) what I stand to really lose with this life of mine (as it is), the confusion of whether it’s “worth it”…both of us knowing that despite the costs, I’m not giving up this travel life. Not for anything that I stand to lose. People, money, security, comfort.

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Hooked. Self portrait.

3 AM or so and the Paris night is only getting started, as we move to leave, weaving between fashionably dressed Parisians, in my standard night dress (flip flops…). Ralph walks me down quiet alleys, past amazing boutiques and the best place for chocolate–which I admit, I don’t really like chocolate, so it’s lost on me. But the wonderfulness of this night–this new unexpected friend, a friend who shares one of my greatest struggles, this chance meeting of two absolute strangers sharing a dinner and hilarious, stunning, intense conversation in Paris–is not.

Dancing in the Rain, in France

Villeseque des Corbieres, France 547An unexpected project is taking an unexpectedly longer time to wrap up than I could have imagined. Instead of flying out to Turkey, I delay it one week (scramble, scramble to re-arrange things). But the upside, is the extension gives me the weekend, in one place, to work. And a few days to overlap with Martina’s stay.

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Nervous I’ll witness another friend-visit-disappointment, I send her all kinds of warnings: I work a lot, at weird hours, I can’t be social, I’ll ignore you, you might start to hate me because I have to do this work, no matter what. I won’t be any fun.

Of course she laughs, she understands, she has work to do as well, and she’s got a pile of books and sunshine to catch up on. She tells me that she wants to make me coffee in the morning and dinner at night, and will otherwise leave me be.

It is the sweetest thing, ever.

S634he arrives and we spend relaxing south-of-France style days doing our own thing while the sun is out. When the guilt of what I haven’t done or seen or accomplished (my French lessons stalled by the second week) starts to creep in as my trip winds down, Martina is amazing at reminding me to think of all that I was able to do, while here. Of course there weren’t 30 days of tourist-ing or sight-seeing, but I lived in south France, in a tiny village, I walked up through the mountains, beautiful castles, Bastille Day in Villefranche, the Tour with my friends in the Pyrenees…and in true Martina Gruppo form, this trip is not even close to being “over”, even if only 48 hours remain.

My favorite hours are those we share, talking, laughing, trading ideas and thoughts, over wine and panzanella (sp?), the amazing Italian concoction that transforms old baguettes (and with my carb appetite, I supply Martina with a few!) with the most delicious ingredients.

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And then her friend Rachael arrives, a lovely mixture of gold-blond hair and laughter. And bacon! To my utter, jaw-dropping surprise, Martina sends a message to Rachael to smuggle in some REAL bacon from the UK as a gift for my new Turkish landlord, Namik (who is craving real bacon). And, when I’d thought all hope was lost, there it is. One beautiful package of frozen bacon (which I’ll take to Paris, freeze in hotel’s shared freezer, then take to Orly airport, fly to Turkey…present to Namik and get profuse thanks and a hug. All because of bacon, yes, bacon. And Rachael, xo!)

We get along famously — though it’s hard not to when Martina takes us to the tiniest hole-in-the-wall restaurant just 15 minutes down the road in Villeneuve les Corbieres. The decor is quaint, the patrons are simple. The food is. Out. Of. This. World. Amazing.

Rachael, Martina and I laugh our way through five courses of amazing-ness. Duck with a cherry sauce, fish with three tapenades…every bite is out of this world. But the creme brulee.

Warm and perfect. They split the last dish into three, one little bowl for each of us to “oohhh” and “ahhh” over. And we do.

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It’s late in the night when we return home. Music goes up, wine bottles come out, and my stay in France ends with a dance party. It’s hilarious and lovely and quite perfect. I try not to think about leaving tomorrow. Just focus on the here and now and enjoy every last second.

It starts to rain, and then pour. The hot, humid summer days are washed away in a torrent of water and lightening. We watch from the window. And then we’re standing at the front door, in our south of France best dresses after an amazing dinner, setting down glasses of red wine and laughing…

Who hasn’t wanted to run, barefoot, through the warm summer rain in south of France, with their girlfriends?

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So we run. Together.

The flood of rain, gushing down the cobbled road, splashes up with each step.

We run to the first lightpost… and then the next!

Laughing and screaming, as rain pours.

We start to turn back to the safety of the house…but then stop. And actually just stand in the rain.

Rain drips from my saturated hair. White skirt and gray shirt stick to my body. And the rain pours down.

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All I can think or say, It’s like a movie, this is like a movie. This is too amazing….not just the rain, but this, south of France, dinner, Martina and Rachael, the chance to be here, the ups and downs it took to make this trip at all.

I run inside and grab my camera. Martina and Rachael swirl each other around, at midnight, in the middle of Rue de Gleon in Villeseque des Corbiers, in the rain.

The Tour de France

So much excitement and suspense, so many helicopters circling, and chants and cheers getting louder…and then they arrive, fast, furious and oh-so-hard to capture as they speed up the side of the mountain. After years of only getting as close as my TV would allow, it’s crazy to stand within inches of the world’s best cyclists and think of how hard they must have worked to get here.

More photos here: Tour de France

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Pre-Tour

We get up early, load up on croissants, baguettes and cafe, then head for the tram, with our new Texan friend in tow. Up the mountains, and into the circus that is the pre-tour. For miles the road is lined with fans and flags. Children and grown men scribble chalk and spray-paint encouragement on the pavement. The afternoon is filled with cow bells, anthems, cheers….and a group of costumed men (the highlight is Phillipe, the hilarious half-dressed police man who kids the real cops and fans, alike), who provide non-stop entertainment.

There are really no words for the show…

The rest of the photos here: Tour de France

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Faux Tour de France

France - The Tour 160I get up early to wrap up work by 2pm on Saturday. Eight hours later, it’s done. I’m back on my lovely French roads, scanning stations for a word or song I might know, or would like to know. Time passes and roads grow increasingly remote and rugged, as I climb into the Pyrenees.

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It’s slow going. There are wrong turns to make, places to stop for a photo, large ambling RVs to tail.

And as I get higher into the cool clouds and mountains, the RV problem is compounded by hair pin turns between hoards of bicyclists, pedestrians and cars all weaving along the tour route, for tomorrow, in anticipation. It’s a careful game. People setting up for a night of camping, line the nearly non-existent shoulder of the road and drink and watch.

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Bored: I start honking and waving back . Crowds erupt into appreciative cheers! And I lovingly refer to the sweaty, swerving packs of lyrca as “The Faux Tour” and try not to hit them.

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Texting Christine through mountain passes that hardly seem passable, only to arrive at a steep downhill descent into Ax les Thermes.   Rockstar parking appears from nowhere.

And I’m walking to the center of town. When I see my dear friend, appear from the Bavarian-style row of buildings, all the way from Seattle, the friend who has traveled to Indonesia to meet me, and now is in France, with me—its surreal! Happy hugs and laughter.

We sit down for the most amazing dinner of potatoes and cheese (lost of cheese) on a cold day, catching up, talking about France, remembering/laughing about Indonesia. I ask her the question I’ve asked in every country we’ve ended up in, together. Do you want to hear me count to 100? . Of course she does!!

France - The Tour 173France - The Tour 167We laugh as I count, and neighboring tables listen curiously. In minutes we’ve be-friended the elderly Swiss couple next to us who have followed the tour for 20 years (until the last year the man – pushing 70 – has ridden most of it). The woman asks how  long it’s been since we’ve seen each other (she was moved by our happy reunion in the town center, which she saw from her dinner table). I pause…count…6 weeks? The dynamic biking, boarding, business-starting, globe-trotting duo–reunited in a teeny tiny town in France after traveling miles from opposite directions. It’s a little mind-blowing.

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Justin joins us. And we pick up a lone Texan, Davis, in the melee to order dessert. (We see everyone with an ice-cream served in an amazing wooden bird cup—leading to an entertaining pantomime asking for the ice-cream in a bird, but we do it. We all learn the word for bird: oiseau. And it is amazing.) Still not tired, we wander down the street, I pick up a local hardened goats cheese to go with the wine we order at an outdoor techno bar, in the middle of the mountain courtyard.

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Knifeless, we improvise (like the world-travelers we are) . Cutting French chevre with  various credit cards and dental insurance cards as we finish off a carafe of red wine. Justin and Christine are part of the Mongol Rally Team driving a tiny car from London to Mongolia for charity. (I was to be a part of it, but bailed realizing I needed to work and that I wanted to stay in a few places for longer periods of time.)

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It’s amazing to listen to their stories, already, the scale of what they will attempt together. The visas and stamps they’ll collect.

As we get to leave the bartender makes his way to us,  he apologizes for the cheap wine. I laugh. It was delicious. He asks what we’re doing in Ax les Thermes. When we say the tour, he rolls his eyes.

He doesn’t understand. To him it is not France. It frustrates him that people, Americans, tourists, come here for this. It’s like the, um, footbal parties on the back of the car. There is no mistaking what he tells us next, in exact American slang: It is white trash.

Villefrance de Rouegrue

France - The Tour 065I need something new.

Anything to get my mind off the things in my life not working right now.

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I email Peter. In minutes he’s arranged for me to arrive at his house in two days, to stay for three (though he insists it’s mine until he comes back in a month, this is the kind of strangers I’m meeting these days…).

Work done, I hop in the car and drive. It’s quiet and warm, winding down highways and sideroads of France with no navigator. Instead I’m driving and finding my way north, stopping for a pastry and café in some tiny town with a ruined castle, which could be any of the towns in France. I fly past the castle of Carcasonne, through Toulouse and further north.

France 253Wild, jagged horizons soften to green fields, leafy forests, and miles upon miles of nodding yellow sunflowers and a million viewpoints I promised myself I’d stop by on the my way back, when I had more time. Now I have 2 hours drive to meet Nathalie, Peter’s partner, letting me into the house. A few inadvertent wrong turns and I realize I’m going to be late.  I find her number and call, apologetic. Nathalie’s English (with a lovely British accent) is flawless and beyond compassionate.

I too have been busy and hurrying. This is not a bad situation but something that is good. We should not let ourselves be troubled by this. Instead, you should enjoy your drive. Lets meet an hour later. It will give me time to tend to errands and check email. It is perfect.

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Stone bridges and one-way roads through rows of medieval houses lead me to Nathalie. Standing in the sunset with her small dog. We walk to the nearest outdoor restaurant for dinner, my treat, and the least I could do for her last-minute kindness. We dine on entrecote with pomme frites, ratatoullie (the area’s specialty) and wine, under large trees, as the villagers mill around the fountain.

France 012We talk of travel, life, couch-surfing (as Nathalie is a fan and has met many amazing individuals who travel to her) and languages. Nathalie learned English in the UK only ten years prior, while attending a nursing training. She laughs, as a result, for the first year she was more at ease, talking in English, about neurological phenomena than the intricacies of pleasant conversation.

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She is curious of my work. I speak bluntly of the upsides and downsides.

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We walk through a maze of narrow roads to the house, as there is not parking at the house. Then Voila. I realize my new French house is also nothing short of amazing. Nathalie leaves and the house is quiet, but for my soft steps across new and antique wood of massive rooms.

A gift to me, from someone I barely know. (Have you ever felt like the most special person in the world. That is how I feel.) Old white walls, raw timbers, rich red comfortable couches and chairs with antique tables and a massive fireplace so large I can stand inside it.

villefranche_lightBlack and white pictures line the walls. It’s like it’s own photography show. In the quiet night, I look at each one.

Peter emails me: do you like it? There is a small candle next to the fire place to light while you’re there.

I light the candle and it flickers as I work the rest of the night. Before going to bed at 3AM local time, I light another. Curtains flutter in the cool night breeze then I’m sinking into a bed that’s hundreds of years old.

Castles of Carcassonne

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My friend is coming to visit for 5 days and I couldn’t be more excited.

I rent the car we’ll need to get around, independently.

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I see her standing in Perpignan, after last chatting over wine in Seattle and joking about how amazing it would be for her to join me in my crazy big France house. Hugs and dinner of amazing cheese, duck and wine. Crepes and a trip to the grocery store in Narbonne.

I feel like a grown up, driving myself and my friend around France. And she loves it, she decides to stay an extra week and we sit up on the terrace, drinking wine, as she makes new plans: drive to Barcelona for the world cup weekend, then Paris for Bastille Day, then she’d fly home.

It’s lovely, someone to share all this with. But I get nervous. So much time driving and traveling and fun–three more trips yet to plan, ten other people to coordinate meetings around the world, references for fundraising work, and real work. It’s stacking up. While she goes for walks and reads books, I work.

980Two days pass and it’s apparent she won’t be able to trade her ticket for something further out. This will be her last days in France. And, without the excitement of World Cup or Bastille Day or even the Eiffel Tower. Instead it’s been slow, small town time, hot days, lots of flies. No fancy French boys, just the breadman (whom I love). It’s hard for me to see a good friend, very unhappy. With France, and seemingly, with me.

I try to appease her with lunch, a laugh or story, but she’s adamant, vehement and inconsolable — she hates the place. All of it. She wants the F— out…

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I wilt. Holding back tears, hands shaking.

Stuck with a rental car, I’d unwittingly booked the extra days, there’s no way I can make it with her to Paris (she wants to see the Eiffel Tower and I have none to give…) now that we’re back to the original plan. Suddenly it’s her last night in South France. The realizations come in waves, for her and for me. It’s a difficult time.

Not sure what to do, I suggest a castle. So we drive. Awkward turns through small towns, speeding down highways lined with vineyards. And then, we’re driving towards the massive shadows of a medieval castle. It’s spectacular and unreal.

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Walking across the bridge and up the hill, in the lingering heat of warm day, it’s more amazing. We stop of pizza and I try my French on the woman at the counter, as she smiles and understands my requests, to my surprise (thank you breadman for the practice!), I order pizza, and two pink-purple raspberry macaroons.

I understand the 12.40 Euros when she asks for it.

I understand when she compliments my improved French, with a smile. It’s nothing, but I couldn’t be happier, actually, as we make our way through the main row of shops selling plastic swords and knight costumes and what seems like the same cheap stuff you see at any market, any country, and to quieter, less trafficked walkways around the castle peripheral.

1020Layers of timeless rock. Round towers. High walls.  Trying to imagine what it was like then, if, with all our modern amazing feats of today, of all the photos I’ve seen of this castle before coming, of all that I know about the world and history — the reality, and the moment of walking along these walls, leaves me breathless.  Or maybe it’s because of all that we’ve done, all that I know, all that I’ve seen, it leaves me breathless.

1145I was positive I’d be able to write this off as “a castle”, check! But there is so much more, the depth of history, and (I think of the late night talking through sunset and beyond with Peter about) the depth of a single life, my life, for example. For the birth, the growth, the dreams, the heartbreak, again and again over a lifetime, until the end — and when I think of all that I feel and dream of now, and pause to think of all those lives before. I let it just blow my mind, as I walk quietly, listening to pigeons, who have made homes in the eroded rock, coo.

1172We head back. Two kids call to me, “Madamoiselle!”

1177When they see the confusion on my face as they rapid fire cute French questions, the little boy switches to Spanish, “habla espanol..?” And so we talk and confuse eachother. They don’t understand how I am American. They love my camera. They pose and laugh. Keeping the strap firmly around my neck, I let him have a go. He swings the camera wildly and laughs. They end taking my photo, on their camera phone, as I walk away, laughing.

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It’s more nothing. But it takes my breath away, how we connect and interact, miles and worlds and languages away from anything familiar.

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There is nothing I can do, to make any of this better, so I just drive us home. Back through winding vineyards and quaint towns, kids playing under an old tree, men with cigarettes and round stomachs eating at roadside cafes from plastic chairs that skirted the empty road.

That night I sneak down to the village music fete, in the dressiest shirt I had, though a little too late to catch Ellen and say a final goodbye. When I don’t recognize anyone, instead of going straight home, I walk around the deserted streets of Villeseque, in the warm midnight, to the muffled thump of fete music, thinking.