C.W. Gusewelle

Trip to France comes complete with rich recollections

C.W. Gusewelle, 1976
C.W. Gusewelle, 1976

Originally published on Nov. 12, 2000.

A bank of gray clouds rolled up from the south and west, across the English Channel, and the weather turned dampish, as autumn in Paris is wont to do.

Of our 10 days in France, only four and part of another were truly sunny. That didn’t matter, though. Not one of our traveling companions complained. And Paris, the queen of cities, is lovely in all her moods.

For some in the group, the place was entirely fresh and new. Others, like us, were retracing steps from remembered times.

It was fine to be able, once again, to make all the favorite stops — to walk the Tuileries garden on a chilly day, then cross to the arcade on the street’s far side and step into the gracious establishment called Angelina for a cup of hot chocolate and a confection.

The little Marmatton museum, rich with paintings by Monet, was much as we remembered, although the collection has been rearranged. It must be better known now, for the number of visitors was greater.

The vast cathedral, the point from which all distances in France are measured, was brooding and magnificent as always.

The Girl With a Flowered Hat, her delicate beauty captured in clay more than 100 years ago, still occupied her corner of a downstairs room in what once was the home and workplace of the sculptor, Auguste Rodin. She hasn’t aged a minute. She never will.

Traveling three days in the country south of Paris, we visited the grand residence at Amboise in the valley of the Loire, where Leonardo da Vinci passed his last years. We spent part of an afternoon sampling the grape in a wine merchant’s cave. Passed our nights in charming quarters. Ate prodigiously.

In the ancient quarter of Tours, a portly gray-muzzled Labrador retriever lounged on his rug outside a shop door and lovingly mouthed his toys — three teddy bears.

A later morning we went a short way north, to the town of Auvers on the river Oise. We climbed up in a driving rain to the farm field above the town — a wheat field when Van Gogh painted it — and paid homage at the graves of Vincent and his brother, Theo.

Then, thoroughly drenched, we trudged back down for a fine afternoon meal at the inn where the artist lodged and where, after shooting himself in despair over what he saw as a failed life, he died.

In spite of that bit of tragic history, the Auberge Ravoux is a merry place. For dessert, they bring out the chocolate mousse in an immense crock and you eat as much as your conscience or your spouse permits.

The last day we visited one of the great Paris cemeteries. But you need a bit of sun for that. Instead, a cold rain was beating down. Sodden and miserable, I lost my way to the tombs of the famous, and we did not stay long.

Outside our coach another dog — an Afghan hound, I think it was — passed by fully clad in a belted rain suit with a hood. I didn’t notice what the master was wearing. The dog was stylish enough for them both.

Finally, then, the rain diminishing to a drizzle, we crossed the city all in a group to a little restaurant on the Left Bank, a special favorite, where we ate well, drank just enough, and — wrapped in friendship — relived our adventures in conversation.

Those were the group activities.

But one earlier afternoon, with nothing planned, we’d ridden out — just the two of us, my wife and I — to the last station on the No. 10 Metro line. That was our stop in the year we lived in Paris. The exit to the street directly faces our apartment.

In 15 years hardly anything had changed. The florist’s, the butcher’s and the news vendor’s shops all still were in their places. So was our bakery, La Fromentine.

We bought a couple of our favorite sweets and carried those across to the brasserie on the far corner, where nearly every afternoon while our daughters were at their classes we used to have a coffee, work the crossword in the Herald Tribune and watch the people go by.

This day, like many others before and after, was chilly and misting, but we took our regular table on the sidewalk under the awning, not caring that we were the only ones outside.

It almost seemed no time had intervened — that the girls must soon be coming by bus from their school on the hill across the river and that we, too, were as young as we were then.

It wasn’t true, of course, and the moment passed. But what we felt was not so much sadness as a kind of wonder and gratitude that that magical year was a part of our shared experience, forever safe in memory.

It is the greatest sort of luck to have had a year like that in such a place. It can’t be lived again. But, then, no one is owed it twice.