Late November 1992
It's been twenty years since I last saw my birthplace, Paris, when I was there in 1972 as the French interpreter for the Grateful Dead's 45-person entourage. Then, I helped members of the group with their translation needs, assisted the stage crews in communicating with French technical personnel at the venues, and kept the peace at airports, hotels, and posh restaurants when the weary and short-tempered road warriors insulted the locals. At one famous soiree for which we'd taken over a very exclusive restaurant in the Bois de Bologne, my diplomacy skills were called upon a number of times to keep some of the crew from blowing a perfectly heavenly meal for the rest of us. Eventually, someone had the wild idea of passing a hash pipe around the room to all, including the waiters. Rather than our ending up in deep trouble, as I'd feared, the evening ended with the maitre d' in blissful reverie in a corner of the room as the entire crew noshed on elegant desserts, on the house.
Today, I'm flying to Paris to meet, for the first time, my one and only cousin, Muriel. She's a woman in her 50's who lives in one of Paris' neighborhoods somewhat away from the historic center, but still within the "Peripheral Boulevard". For many years, I've looked forward to making this personal connection with one of the members of my very small family. Often around the holidays, I would sigh with a bit of envy when friends with large families ritually complained about having to buy all those holiday presents.
Muriel was a 24-year-old rising star in the Paris advertising world when an automobile accident shattered her spine, confined her to a wheelchair, and irrevocably altered her life. Much to the dismay of her protective mother, she got her own apartment and chose to live independently, building a livelihood around her considerable intellect and talents in languages, writing, and needlepoint.
Muriel's father, Jacques, was my uncle, and he and my dad were raised in Paris, the children of divorced parents. Once we immigrated to the US, the brothers didn't speak for over twenty years as a result of their mother's neurotic manipulations. (In the late 1960's, after his mother's death, my dad returned to Paris for a visit and reconciled with his brother, who was to die within a few years.)
Dad and Muriel had corresponded for many years, sharing an affinity for classical music, intellectual discussion, and extremely dry humor. I remember being ten or so, and gathering around the big reel-to-reel tape recorder in the living room, having a microphone thrust into my face, and being told, "Go on, say something for your cousin Muriel!" When Dad died in 1983, my mother briefly took up the correspondence torch, but her heart wasn't in it - so I took over for a while, and found Muriel to be interesting and funny. She and I couldn't have been more different, but somehow, the wry survivalist humor seemed to run sideways in our branch of the family tree.
5:30 p.m. Friday Paris time
Impressions: CDG airport - Utilitarian, dismal grey architecture, incredibly busy, smelling of jet fuel and diesel, huge jumbo jets taxiing only yards from the roadway on their way to the gates. After clearing customs and immigration, I take a long walk looking for the Air France bus into Paris, a great value. Advertising signs on the way out of the airport - an eight-foot 3-D bottle of Perrier poised on its edge by the side of the road with 3 spheres on spikes representing bubbles floating outside the bottle; a twenty-foot can of Pepsi at a jaunty angle by the roadway. The bus is crowded, very hot, and stuffy, I feel like I'm going to pass out; the traffic is horrific. For at least two-thirds of the way into Paris - nothing but ugly, huge, concrete apartment complexes topped with giant electronic advertising logos for major overseas video companies. First stop, Arc de Triomphe; second stop (mine) Porte de Maillot. First encouraging sight, the Sacre Coeur high above Paris in the distance, but the air!! Smog, thick and smoky gray. We'll see tomorrow….
A taxi to my cousin's apartment from the bus stop - 36f. I'm so tired I can't think straight, and I give the driver a 14f tip - just to make it an even 50f - paying $10 for traveling only a mile or so. Into the secured building with the push-button passcode, and up the tiny elevator to the 3rd floor. I knock on the door, and Celia, Muriel's cook, aide, and companion, seems startled to see me - no wonder - Muriel's last houseguest had left only 15 minutes earlier after staying nearly two weeks in Muriel's tiny apartment! Celia leads me into Muriel's large room where she's in bed resting, her wheelchair beside the bed. I go over and give her a kiss on the cheek, and then sit on the couch and we talk nonstop for over an hour. Mercifully, we like each other.