The next day was one of the most important national holidays in France, Labor Day and everything was closed. My friend decided not to join us as we wouldn’t be able to visit the Palais de Toyko. This left the two of us in the rain without a plan. It was a miserable four hours before my flight back to Berlin. He looked disappointed my friend was not joining and he became critical and behaved like a boyfriend before they want to break-up.
At our first cafe of the day, he noted, “I think you’re lost and I hope you find yourself.”
At our second cafe, I ordered a crepe without even powered sugar on it. They were the saddest two little crepes I had ever seen, dry to eat and probably equally unappetizing to the person seeing me eat it.
I said, “Maybe my ordering the crêpes was Freudian, representing how I feel right now.”
He replied, “Freudian has to be sexual, like a dry crepe with nothing inside.”
I answered, “Yes.”
At our last cafe/hostel bar next to Gard du Nord, we each had a glass of Guinness. We shared our mutual love for the creamy, rich foam on top and how the rest possessed a heavy, getting it over and done with feel. We agreed the top was like the beginning of life and the bottom, analogous to a retirement home eating pizza. He said he felt he might not be able to love again, that he was exhausted. I told him maybe he hadn’t met the right person.
I told him about Shakespeares’ seven ages of man, the first an infant, then a schoolboy, a lover and a soldier. He said he was a soldier. I said I was too and that I hoped to one day leave that stage. Being a soldier sucked.
His parting well wishes to me were, “You’re going to find love, I can see it in my Guinness glass. My Guinness says so.”
He hugged me tightly and kissed me lightly, two soldiers parting to fight the world alone. However that wasn’t our last goodbye, distracted and full of thought, I went through the turnstile and saw an escalator going up and concluded I could not go down in that direction and walked straight through another exit turnstile. He came running out and breath but first laughing to tell me I had just exited.
His last words to me were actually, “Just follow the RER sign… ! ”
He told me about the girl he was once crazy in love with, ones he was just in love with, girls that were just 2.1, one that was the craziest thing he ever did. I was just the girl he wanted to kiss in Paris.
We hit all the main sights of Paris, starting with the Trocadéro walking to metro Jasmin, on to Montmartre and then to Notre Dame. While walking through the 16th, I tried to take us off the main road, a surprisingly large one for Paris and found he was trying to take us to a specific point before we wandered. Before we hit this predetermined point, we passed a branch of Pierre Hermé. My friend loved their artisan jams and since they didn’t ship to the U.S., her supply came from my sporadic endeavors. We walked into an empty store, even the shop assistant had left her post. He went straight to the macaroons and I went straight for the jams. My hand reached up to a top shelf to grab an Ispahan jam, her favorite. They were stacked going no higher than two tiers. I reached for one on the bottom, suddenly causing one from above to crash to the ground. The shop assistant came out and looked over with a sigh of oh well to the splattered jam. I apologized and she motioned such things happen.
When we had first arrived at Trocadéro, I had given him this piece of chocolate I had saved from my Lufthansa flight breakfast. A little Berlin bear holding an “I love Berlin” red heart made by a local chocolatier Fassbender & Rausch. Why do we like to give little sweets to our potential sweethearts? After taking in the always surprising view of the Effiel Tower from Trocadéro, I was moved enough by the view to muster some courage, to give him what I had wanted to give him at Charles de Gaulle.
“I brought something for you from the airplane.” Oh the elegance of my conversational prose, blunt and simple like a butter knife.
“That is so sweet, let me guess. Is it sweet?”
“Is it chocolate?”
I fished in my overloaded Longchamp bag and brought out my Berlin bear.
“That is so sweet. I’m going to eat it right now.”
I felt so much better after he ate the chocolate, I felt accepted again. I was thankful for this, I had feared his refusal of the Berlin bear. On my return flight to Berlin, I again received a Berlin bear from Lufthansa which I ate myself. There was less cacao and more sugar than a 27% chocolate.
At Pierre Hermé, I only picked one macaroon being conscious of the money he was spending. I later regretted not having taken more. I picked a light-colored mint macaroon flavored olive oil & vanilla and he got the same. He mimicked my orders till dinnertime and for the first time in my life, I never had a problem deciding what I wanted to order. No endless deliberations. During the course of the day, he picked three bugs out of my hair and exclaimed in amazement that my hair attracted an abnormally high percentage of bugs. I wondered without him, would I just be walking around cities with bugs in my hair.
Having been a high school drum major, he had theories on the character traits of each of the marching band instruments focusing mainly on the horns. He shared this with me in the metro. I didn’t pay attention to which metro, he always knew where we were going.
“You played the clarinet. I can totally see you as a clarinet,” he said.
“That is not the instrument I would have chosen for myself. My dad picked it for me.”
“Which instrument would you have chosen?”
“You’re not a cello, you’re a clarinet. I always liked clarinets and trumpets the most. Clarinets are the nerdy, quiet ones. The flutes are like the town hoe, the French horns are usually arrogant and egoists, trumpets are more relaxed and easy-going and then it just progresses to more relaxed and more (he slightly hunches over) the bigger the brass instrument, like the tubas.”
“So are you like a French horn?”
“I used to be more arrogant.”
“Because you were smart?”
Earlier that morning, walking under the Eiffel Tower, I had tried to show off my one piece of knowledge about French horns which wasn’t even from my own astute observation but rather one of the few things about classical music I had taken away from my classical music lover ex. My ex had hated French horns in the orchestra. He thought they ruined concerts and were lazy, all around bastards for being the culprits of destroying his musical transcendence. A missed note at the end of an orchestral piece to send him toppling to the ground “Damn the French Horns!” He lamented that all they had to do was hit the last note in the piece and they couldn’t even do that because they were probably just sleeping or just lazy.
“Someone once told me that French horns ruined orchestral concerts by hitting the wrong note at the end.” Delivering my 2 cents worth of French horn knowledge.
“That’s true. There are times when I think, there is no way I am hitting that note. That is why you see a lot of horn players doing this.” He uses one hand to replicate the up and down motion associated with male masturbation. I laughed.
As we walked down into the park below Trocadéro, I needed to use the restroom. He expressed what he thought we could be doing in the Jardins du Trocadéro.
“I was thinking we could get a blanket and some wine and sit here, what do you think?”
“Sure, sounds good.”
It never happened, not even an attempt to go into a grocery store. The idea came and went like a passing thought. When I saw two restaurants along the edges of the park, I made my way over. The first cafe asked for a euro so I went next door and the guy reluctantly let me go for free. When I came back out, I saw him sitting on the edges of a flower pot with his head in his hands, looking as if in deep despair.
“You look like you’re in despair.”
“Despair, that’s a great word.”
We walked along an nondescript boulevard away from the park and away from a lovers lounge in the park. He asked, “Who did you sell to?”
“I was actually pretty good at it, I disarmed them with my quiet demeanor.”
“You have a nice voice, I can see that. You know what I do also involves selling myself.”
“I found that its easier to sell to men rather than women. I never had luck with women. Its just a lot of objection handling with men, if you can convince them logically, they will buy. Its different with women.”
“It was the opposite with me. I had more luck with women. I think with women you have to appeal to their imagination. Funny how that comes into play.”
We circled around back up to Trocadéro. “Have you thought of going back to Academia?” he asked.
“I like their pursuit of knowledge but I don’t think like an academic. You need to be thorough and analytical. I’m more creative and not thorough.”
“I think artists are the most ethical of the professions.”
“But they’re not ethical when it comes to sex. They’re the most amoral in that respect. Sex is apart of their creative process, so they’re free.”
Thinking back on this response, I wasn’t referring to myself but to a 19 year old Canadian artist I had recently met in Berlin. Unfortunately, he didn’t know this.
I continued, “You know my half-brother couldn’t understand what I could possibly be doing in Berlin, so he asked if I was a librarian because he knew I loved books.” We laughed.
We made our way along another nondescript boulevard into the residential 16th arrondissement. For all the tiny sidewalks, he liked to direct us onto decidedly unParisian roads. Once we began to wander off the main road, into the heavily quiet, empty and residential, we crossed several tiny streets with no traffic. I suspected he picked this based on my now mysterious comments on wealth, which I no longer remembered. The buildings were uniform in material and design, establishing an air of order, stately and grand but a bit uptight. No window showed a burst of individual eccentricity. As soon as we began to cross a street, I would feel his hand on my back. At one deserted crossing, his hand lightly tapped my back twice.
“What was that?” I laughed.
“To make sure you crossed the street safely.” He smiled.
At the start of our wandering point in the 16th, he also noticed that my shoulders and the entire back area behind my shoulders were tense.
“This whole area is tense. I”m going to have to give you a back massage one day.” he said as he touched that area.
“Its always tense there. I’m eventually going to become a hunchback. You notice everything.”
It was true, my shoulders felt more tense than usual. Exactly one skinny, stylish French girl passed us while we were walking in the 16th. She was wearing various layers of black and leather and her walk suggested she had better things to do than walk behind us. He made a negative judgement toward the rich looking pretty girl.
“I was explaining to my Moroccan friend the meaning of the word ‘bitch.’ When I finished, she said, you mean French girls?” As the girl walked pass us, he said, “Kind of like her.”
We passed by a compact, vintage, boxy car. One that gave off the image of being an old classic but was brand new.
“I like small cars, like this one,” he said as he walked around to look into the driver’s seat. “I don’t understand why people like big things… big cars like SUVs. That’s why I liked Bruges. I loved the buildings there. Have you ever been?”
“Yes, I understand.” I liked guys who were not characteristically tall. And it was a good sign when they liked small things. I felt it meant they liked themselves.
“If you could live anywhere in the world regardless of money, where would you live?”
“Also language?” An obstacle I considered stronger than money.
“I’d live in Rome. What about you?”
“I’d want a place in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Another place somewhere along the Mediterranean. I’d like a place in Bruges and maybe a house in China.”
“That’s a lot of places.”
We came across a neighborhood church. I always go into churches. When we entered, he bent down on one knee and crossed himself. He tried to instruct me on doing the same, but I continued to the pews.
“Are you Catholic?” I asked.
“No, but I like to show respect when I enter any church. I sometimes pray.”
“I’m not religious but I also pray.”
We took a seat and stared at the large crucification cross in front of us. It was a modern interpretation made of wood, with the arms of the cross rising into victory arms.
“I’ve never seen a cross look so happy,” I observed.
“I like it. You know there are some denominations that are happier.”
He took out his camera and took a photo of the happy cross. “I used to pray to St. Jude, the saint for hopeless and desperate cases, for hope when I was unemployed and back home,” his face serious in reflection.
Outside we walked past a men’s clothing store and he stopped and looked into the display window. “I like suede shoes, like these.”
My thoughts naturally drifted back to his morning story of the 45 year-old and the suit. In thought, not only did I momentarily stop listening, my eyes stopped looking too. As he looked, I was lost in negative thought.
“Why do you like suede?” I presently had on a suede jacket and suede shoes.
“They’re easier to clean.”
Brought back to the present, I tried to recover how one cleaned suede, but I was looking in a foggy mind. We left the window and I never saw the shoes.
Somewhere deep in the 16th arrondissement near metro Jasmin, we took a cappuccino break and I insisted we sit at the bar instead of one of the outside tables. I recounted my lesson in the necessity of bar seating for cheaper coffee prices. The entire cafe was empty and all the Parisians were just like us clambering to the bar. One old guy dragged a stool right behind us as we took the last two seats and asked if he could be considered as bar seating. They told him he could sit by the window and still be considered at the bar.
He liked the cappuccino and the conversation veered to Asian fetish. I said “Everyone thinks just because I live in Germany I only like blond guys.”
“I know, I once dated a black girl and everyone said I had Jungle fever.”
“You know there are some Asian girls that only date other Asians.”
He nodded his head.
I continued, “The first thing I have to do with these girls is prove that the guy I like does not have a thing for Asians. I also used to think it was a bad thing (and in some cases it is) but when you actually think about it, I want the guys to like Asians. I’m Asian.”
“But don’t you want them to like you uniquely as Johanna.”
“Of course, but I am not a free floating entity. I exist in an Asian body, that is also part of who I am. Do you have a type?”
“I don’t have a type, you’d have to ask my friends.” He seemed upset by this question, which made me think I wasn’t his type.
As my friend saw me off on the train back to Berlin, she wistfully said, ” I hope your train ride is like Before Sunrise.” To which I replied, “You haven’t seen the people who sit next to me on trains.” Instead, my Deutsche Bahn train got delayed almost until sunrise and so I got a 9 EUR refund.
I had spent part of the weekend in Frankfurt asking her to help me deconstruct a music video in which a wolf was following a lady in a blue dress. Then I threw in an extra variable of Phrygian mythology into the mix in which a man becomes like a woman or dresses like a woman. Listening to myself, I realized this is really hard to explain. I had the feeling I must be the wolf scared off by the sound of music and then left on the road as the car drives off. And if one wolf wasn’t enough, I saw another one looking straight into my eyes, telling me sweetie pie, you’re the wolf honey bun. The second she-wolf was this pseudo-cinematic poster for Ed Aktins’ Corpsing exhibition at MMK.
When we walked into the exhibition, my friend noticed the artist was born in 1982 and said, “He was born in 1982 and already in a museum. Johanna, we’re losers.” I replied, “He’s ‘one of the greatest artists of our generation.’ ” I told her it might be difficult in the beginning to understand but after about 20 minutes, it will start making sense. Every 5 minutes, I checked in to see how bored she was, “Are you okay?” She said, “This guy is the king of depression but I like the song.” Song went something like this,” I didn’t know… I didn’t know how deep I had gone…” The avatar sang this as he sank deeper and deeper into acts of depression while his body started to decompose until finally a sinkhole (that was unknowingly present the whole time) opens up during an earthquake and swallows him and his world whole. The next day while we were driving through the city, I heard my friend humming a tune and realized it was the depressed avatar song.
Her son was now 3-years-old, so after I bought him some coloring wall stickers and a coloring poster I asked her, “Does your son like to color?” “I’ve never seen him coloring.” “Oh, what does he like?” “He wants to be Darth Vader.” So when my wonderful coloring gifts were revealed, all three of us (Friend, Dad, and Me) made an effort to get him to start coloring. He made like three rough up and down motions with a green marker outside the coloring lines and then started yelling, “Badminton, badminton!” However, I didn’t want to stop coloring but felt I had too. Then, the dad got out the badminton rackets, but the boy kept missing the birdie. My friend then turned to me and said “See, can’t color or play badminton.” “So much energy…” “This is nothing.” Then, the son started yelling, “Darth Vader, Darth Vader!” So the dad got his black cape, mask and lightsaber, fastened the cape, handed him the mask and the lightsaber, and then he presented himself to me as Darth Vader.
The next day the whole family and I went to brunch at a Japanese/ French cafe. After a few bites of peaceful eating, the son’s head erupts. He starts coughing, then his nose starts running, then tears start streaming down his cheeks and then he vomits. His dad catches the vomit in his hands as I quickly pick up a plate for it to be disposed. The two of them immediately head home but my friend barely even freaks out. “Your son’s head just erupted!” “Happens all the time,” and she goes back to eating. Just the two of us now, I start telling her of this video I posted on Facebook and got a Durex condom advertisement in my newsfeed. But right as I start telling this, my friend calls which I ignore because I specifically told him I would be busy visiting a friend but accidentally took the call so he hears the first half of the story. Astonishing how much I was able to communicate in just under a minute.
A Palermo lady upgraded my room to one with a view of Teatro Massimo. Teenage kids party, socialize, dance, drink wine, and make out all around it. I fed a homeless cat a hot dog in front of a cafe on one of its side streets.
Inside the theater, there is a room originally only for nobles called Pompeian Hall or the Echo Room with frescos from Pompeii circling it. If you stand in the center of the room and speak, your voice echoes and everyone can here you. But if you stand anywhere else, your conversations will be drowned out by other conversations, keeping all conversations private.
When this lady found out I would be spending two nights in Messina, she grimaced and said, “Messina is not worth the trouble. Just sleep there.”
I told another Milanese lady I’d be going to Messina and her eyes went wide and asked, “Why?”
Then in a long-winded fashion I tried to explain, “I saw these paintings in the Risorgimento museum in Turin and…” and before I could finish she said, “You’re going because of Garibaldi ?!” and then she laughed for a good 2 minutes.
I blame the tempera paintings of Carlo Bossoli found in the National Museum of the Italian Risorgimento Turin. I saw Messina and decided to go. His little room of paintings showed the Piedmontese conquering and yet also admiring the view.
I blame Filippo Juvarra for being born there and Caravaggio for being on the run. But it wasn’t as ugly as everyone said it would be. Although everything was destroyed in an earthquake, the so-called ugliest city in Sicily still had its charms. I saw the Strait of Messina and its like the width of the Rhine in Cologne. In the distance, you can see the white buildings of Reggio Calabria. I had a Bronte pistachio gelato twice. I saw a boat called “Tourist & Carton” and found my little poseur dog from the Boudin painting I loved so much. He is a little bigger in real life.
So I asked this Palermo lady the places she liked the best in Sicily and she said, “Agrigento in the south. It has 5 Greek temples and Erice with over 100 churches. And the most beautiful in the sunset, the salt dunes in Marsala.”
“Marsala, like the wine?”
“Yes, they also make salt.”
I thought damn, my love story did not take me there.
In Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard,” the nephew Trancredi arrives unexpectedly one cold November evening to the Salina family home in Donnafugata soaking wet from a thunderstorm. Trancredi exclaims, “Careful, Nuncle; don’t touch me, I’m a sponge!”
It happens quickly, becoming a sponge. When I walked out of the train station in Noto, the pavement was dry but within 10 minutes, about halfway up to the city center, which gradually climbed uphill, small streams of water were diverging at the tip of my shoes with each step I took and I had to leap over larger puddles created in-between worn tracks in the road. The raindrops came down holding hands, hitting my glasses together in a splash. I cursed myself and got stares of curious pity from the drivers.
After the rainstorm drenched everything, within another ten minutes, I was climbing up the stairs of this church soaking wet. I’ve never seen one placed so high. Then, walking down the main street in front of Noto Cathedral, an image familiar and strange appeared, Andy Warhol in a black turtleneck against a yellow background in a show entitled “Warhol è Noto.” The poster hung like a banner down every lamppost and he was dressed in style even though that image must have been taken at least 30 years ago. But the exhibition had closed, I was too late. Walking back in the other direction, I saw the moon, not above the cathedral but below.
And then, as I was walking back toward the train station, this gigantic, perfectly in bloom red rose with tiny raindrops all over it peered down at me from above a fence.
In Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel “The Story of a New Name,” Torregaveta makes an appearance when one of the characters tells her husband she wants to go to the beach with her small son, and her husband, who no longer loves her, tells her to take a bus to Torregaveta.
The bus ride starts from a Naples train station one stop removed from the main train station; the dead end last stop with rows of worn graffitied regional trains parked side by side almost in the dark. The seats in these regional trains are metal and miniature like cable car seats making them hood on the outside but dainty and refined on the inside. Once you leave Naples, the Naples-Torregaveta bus ride is almost entirely along the coast, like the Almalfi Coast route but less winding and less steep. This bus ride requires almost no attention from the bus driver, who frequently had his eyes off the road.
While I was stranded there for 20 minutes, I saw three different wedding groups having their photos taken and as the novel relates, it was not a Capri crowd. From a distance, I saw a little girl in a white dress constantly fluffing a bride’s gown. It was the best image I took in Naples, during my last few hours there. At the time, the only reference I had was to the book cover of the first novel, which I had not yet read, and so I had no idea the location would also signify something in the novel. What’s even more weird is that I had entertained the idea of being a mother with a child on this bus and wondered what it would be like.