Saturday, October 21, 2017

Will & Grace and Aaron & Esther


"Why does she talk so high like that?" 

We were snuggled up on the couch in the den Thursday night. The kids were with me for a very rare three-day weekend because they're on their fall break. I had asked if they'd like to watch "Will & Grace" with me.

"What's that?" Esther had asked. I looked at Aaron. He shrugged his shoulders, which surprised me; they, as typical ninth-graders, both know more about popular culture than I do. But I guess "Will & Grace" is outside their age-related awareness bandwidth.

"It's a show that ran for about eight seasons ten years ago," I had replied, "and has now been revived." I went on to explain that it has two gay characters and two women who are their friends.

"Sure, okay," said Esther cheerily. (Esther is a self-proclaimed snuggle-bunny, but I'm not sure she would want the girls on her soccer team to know that.)

"I guess ... ," offered Aaron, who rarely watches anything with the rest of us when he and his three siblings are at my house every other weekend.

The show started. Esther's question was about Karen's voice. She was intrigued with why and how she could talk like that. Aaron, getting the jokes that - in large part - flew by his sister, laughed more than she did. (He sat through the whole show.)

I myself found this episode funnier that others so far this season. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was because I was happy to share watching it with others - as I had been to watch the season premiere with friends Dan and Russ in their apartment in Berlin several weeks ago and this time with my kids. Perhaps, too, because I was seeing it "live" on TV for the first time this season instead of later on a laptop.

I was happy, as a gay dad, to be sharing this experience with my older teenage kids, particularly since the episode focused on Jack's grandson, Skip, whose parents attempted to put him in a reparative therapy camp because he was evincing too many of the personality traits of his biological grandfather (Jack). I explained to Esther and Aaron what was going on and what the purpose of the camp was.

I suspect this was the first time they had ever heard of such a thing as a reparative therapy camp. The episode handled the issues wonderfully, I thought - seriously yet lightly and oh so funnily. The message of self-acceptance came through loud and clear, and even Jack's son got it.

I wish that I could have more such teaching moments with my kids, but I'm grateful for the ones I do have. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to snuggle on the couch with them, for I know the day is coming when they'll be too "old for that."

I don't do as many activities as I used to do with the four younger kids when they were younger. For one thing, they have grown older and their interests have grown more disparate. For another, I simply enjoy their presence in my home, not feeling like I have to entertain them. It makes the reality of our circumstances, children and divorced parent, seem less artificial, more normal.


I'm grateful for Aaron and Esther, both of whom were adopted from Russia, as well as their little sister, Annie, who was also adopted. (I briefly told the story of their adoptions in 2003 and 2007 in this blog post) It's that season of the year that we celebrate all three of their birthdays: Aaron was born October 19th, Annie October 23rd, and Esther October 31st. They're pretty amazing kids. They've come a long way, as have I.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Cabaret" and a Confused Teenage Boy


I was thirteen or fourteen when I saw the movie "Cabaret" for the first time when it arrived at the theater in my little hometown of Carmi in southern Illinois. There were three scenes from the movie that were seared into my memory at that time. One is captured in the above photograph. Another occurred later in the movie during an argument between Brian and Sally, the characters played by Michael York and Liza Minelli. The third depicts a scene shortly after Brian and Sally met.

I thought about those scenes, and about many other things, a few days ago when I watched "Cabaret" for the first time in many, many years* - certainly more than 30 as I'm quite sure I never watched it after I joined the LDS Church and got married. (It would have been considered far too risqué for a good Mormon priesthood holder to watch, and it also would have been considered - by me - far too gay, and thus too dangerous to watch.)

I did see a stage production of the musical in a small town in southeastern Ohio while working for my dad's oilfield equipment business over the summer. I went with my step-mother, Ruth. It must have been the summer of 1976 or perhaps 1977. I don't recall the musical stirring up quite the same feelings and thoughts in me as I had experienced with the movie; I think certain aspects of the movie were downplayed in the stage production.

As an aside, Ruth and I used to do a lot of things together in those years, such as pick out houseplants for their home, Ruth hoping that Dad wouldn't notice the new arrivals. Then there were the Hummels (Dan), then later paintings or things, as Ruth put it, "to set around" (on living room tables, etc.). We'd also go to movies together. Dad traveled on business a lot, but he also wasn't the type that enjoyed going to movies or shows. Later, Ruth and I would visit antique shops and furniture stores together, both while I worked there over the summers and after I graduated from college and worked there full-time. I suppose you could say she was my fag hag during that period of time when I was in college and shortly thereafter, although neither she nor I realized it.

Ruth, my sister and me on a family vacation in the summer of 1977

As I sat watching the movie the other night, one of the thoughts that came to me was, "My God, I wouldn't have let my little kids watch this movie, especially back in 1972." But to me, at the time, it was my normal.

Let me explain.

In the fall of 1971, I was beginning 8th Grade. I was president of our junior high student council and was also editor of the school newspaper. And, by the by, my parents had just separated, thus beginning a very nasty divorce - and I had recently discovered that I was sexually attracted to boys and men, not girls and women - without the faintest idea what to do about it. A lot going on.

It was in my capacity as editor of the school newspaper that I paid a visit to Mrs. Lee, the manager of the one and only theater in our town (unless you counted the drive-in), just a block away from our school. Since a lot of junior high kids went to the "show" every Friday night, I thought I'd run a feature about upcoming films that would be playing. 

The Carmi Theater. It appears that this photo (from somewhere on the Internet) was taken in the 40's or 50's, but the theater looked pretty much the same when I worked there in the early 70's. The Ford dealership was still there, next door. The box office was the same, the marquee the same, and no doubt the coal-fired furnace at the back of the building that I shoveled coal into, the same.

I came away from my interview not only with information about upcoming movies but also a job offer - to work in the concession stand on weekends for $0.75/hour. I went home and asked my parents (my dad used to come over to the house most evenings) if I could take the job. They assented. I don't recall much discussion about it.

What that meant, among other things, is that I, as an eighth-grader, had regular access to all the movies that were playing, including R-rated movies. Within a year, however, I had been promoted to projectionist, which meant that (besides the fact that I was now making $1.50/hour) I was not just seeing scenes in movies as I walked back and forth to the ice machine behind the screen or obtained candy from the storage room; I was watching entire movies from the projection room - as a high school freshman (who was very young in his class). 

One of those movies was "Cabaret."

The first scene that made a lasting impression on me as a teenage boy was the one where Sally "makes a move" on Brian. When he showed no reaction to her kiss, his eyes wide open as she leans into him, she expresses surprise and disappointment and off-handedly says that maybe Brian likes boys. When he fails to respond, she exclaims, "You DO like boys!"

This was, I am sure, the first time I had EVER seen a reference to homosexuality on the screen - whether in a movie or on television. Back in those days, of course, the only access one had to media were the three network channels on television (four if you count PBS) and movies that one went to see in a theater. Needless to say, homosexuality was never mentioned.

Me, summer of 1972, around the time I would have seen "Cabaret"

So, here I was, 13 or 14, having only fairly recently discovered after going through puberty that I was attracted to boys, seeing the incredibly handsome Michael York depict a character who might be like me. That, I suppose, was affirming to me, and this stuck in my memory.

But then came the confusing part: Sally successfully seduces Brian and they thereafter begin an affair which he seems to very much enjoy, sexually. He comments that he had previously had only three unsuccessful attempts to have sex with women and had been turned off. Then Brian and Sally observe together that they must have been the wrong women.

And that's another thing that stuck in my memory: though there were apparently gay men out there, they could apparently happily have sexual relations with a woman IF she was the right woman. As I grew into adulthood, went through college and started my working career, I assumed that I would get married to a woman, someday, once I had "found the right woman"; and my attraction to men would fade away.

The second scene that stuck in my memory was the one where Sally, Brian and Maximilian are dancing cheek to cheek on the ballroom floor at Maximilian's family estate. Naive as I was, I nevertheless knew what I had already experienced in terms of attraction, and I could see the obvious sexual attraction and tension between Brian and Maximilian. Again, I had never seen anything like that depicted on the screen.

The last scene I vividly recalled was one in which Brian and Sally are arguing. Sally admits that she was "screwing Max." Then Brian responds, "Me, too."

Wow! Again, I had never heard anything like that on screen. The whole affair between Brian and Max was left to the imagination, but those two words - "Me, too" - had an electric effect on me.

I don't know how many times I saw "Cabaret" while it was playing at the theatre. But I know I formed a long-lasting crush on Michael York, and the confusion generated in my mind by these scenes - and from many other sources over the course of my young adult years - would come to me many times as I went out on (very few) dates with girls and later as I contemplated my future. Could I marry? Would I marry? Would I ever experience what Brian and Max apparently had?

It was a lot for a 14-year-old. But not nearly as "heavy" (to use lingo of the time) as first discovering that I, in Sally's words, "like boys."

**************

* Postscript:

I was inspired to watch "Cabaret" again by my recent visit to Berlin. My friend, Dan, took me on a quick tour of the neighborhood of the apartment that he and his husband, Russ, had just moved into, only a few blocks from Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station. A storied area of Berlin, it has long been the city's "Gayborhood." It was here that Christopher Isherwood, upon whose writings "Cabaret" is based, lived for four years from 1929 to 1933. Dan took me to the building where he lived. It was, in a sense, the completion of a journey that had began in 1972 in a small town in southern Illinois.

The plaque on the wall of the building where Isherwood lived. "Here lived from March 1929 to January/February 1933 the English author Christopher Isherwood." His novels "Goodbye Berlin" and "Mister Norris Changes Trains" were based on his life at this address and later formed the basis of the musical, "Cabaret."

Entrance hall in Isherwood's building

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Geography of One's Destiny


“Your soul knows the geography of your destiny.”

I was looking back through the archives of my blog yesterday and came across a post that spoke to me in a powerful way. I find that autumn seems to provoke introspection, particularly inspiring a retrospective of one's life, looking back on previous autumns at different points in life's journey, perhaps seeking touchstones as one continues to explore the bounds and contours of one's future.

I originally wrote the following post in December of 2013 - almost four years ago, three years after having come out, two years after having left the Mormon Church and eight months after learning that Mark had terminal cancer. Though I was at a different point in my journey then than I am now and though I directed my thoughts in the post to my being gay, I found what I wrote speaking to where I am at now. The concepts of the sacredness of one's presence, living within instead of seeking meaning without, having faith in one's course, being gentle with oneself - all of these speak to me now with a richer timbre than four years ago ...

***********
"Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any predetermined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence."
So writes John O'Donohue in his book, Anam Cara. I have written previously about this book. I'm sure I will write much more. Practically every sentence of this book causes me to pause and appreciate the beauty not only of O'Donohue's prose but also the beauty of the concepts he is describing and articulating.

I read a passage the other day that caused me to stop and contemplate, yet once again, the spiritual framework in which I existed for most of my adult life, i.e., Mormonism. My purpose, when I write about Mormonism, is usually not to criticize but to analyze. In particular, I wish to bring the light of consciousness to how I was impacted and how my thoughts may continue to be influenced by the doctrine and practices of the Mormon Church.

With that note of explanation, I was prompted by the following passage to contemplate the concept of "will":
"It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape."
To me, this passage has macro and micro applications. My first thought when I read this was how Mormonism (and, to be fair, other strains of Christianity) stresses that one must diligently and constantly work to beat our lives into a shape that they are "supposed" to be. Of course, no matter how disguised, this view takes as its premise that human nature is inherently bad, or at the very least predisposed to bad. This premise affects one's entire outlook, not only upon oneself but upon all other humans. This is the macro application.

The micro application, i.e., as applied to my own life - a realization I had only as I sat down to write this post - concerns my sexual orientation (which of course is much more than a "sexual" orientation; being gay is about a whole lot more than whom one falls in love with and has sex with). I used my will as a hammer to beat my life into what was stated (by Mormonism) to be its proper shape: a heterosexual male. But of course, the "proper shape" of my life was homosexuality. That's who I am.

O'Donohue goes on to comment on the results of this "proper shape-beating": "This way of approaching the sacredness of one's own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wildernesses of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making." 

I knew exactly whereof O'Donohue wrote, both in a macro and micro sense. On a macro level, it seems to be an implicit (and never-stated) goal of Mormonism (as well as other strains of Christianity) to keep oneself outside oneself, i.e., spirituality comes from without, rather than from within. Truth is "out there"; one's sense of self comes from "out there." 

On a micro level, living in the closet is "externalist and violent" in ways of which most straight people are innocently (or not so innocently) ignorant. Living in the closet brings one "falsely outside" oneself because one cannot validate or accept oneself; one spends "years lost in the wilderness of [one's] own mechanical, spiritual programs," perishing in a famine of self-love and acceptance. I wonder how many heterosexual Mormons and other Christians understand or appreciate this fundamental existential dilemma that gay people face at some point on (or throughout) their journey through life ...

O'Donohue proposes an alternative:
"If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. There are no general principles for this art of being. Yet the signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life."
The first step: trust one's own soul. Trust that it knows - more than anything or anyone else - the geography of one's destiny. I am working - and have been for three years - on building this trust, of finding this rhythm.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Gay Day in Berlin


"You have to make a decision to come out every day. You can't just do it once and be done with it."

So my friend, Dan, had said in a discussion we'd had at lunch on Thursday as I told him about the day trips I had taken out of Paris earlier in the week. The topic of conversation had invariably come around, as I and my fellow tour-mates chatted, to my profession, my family, the fact that I'm retired and why, etc. This led to me talking about Mark, how we had both retired when he was diagnosed, and of course, implicit in those statements is the fact that I'm gay. 

I thought about this conversation throughout the day yesterday as I contemplated a couple of experiences I had as I set out on my walk of discovery across Berlin ...

A canal I passed on the way to the Tiergarten

I was so surprised to see them that my first instincts kicked in. I had set out on my own walking tour of Berlin and was approaching the Tiergarten - Berlin's version of Central Park - when two young men in white shirts approached me with big smiles and black name tags on their shirt pockets, speaking in German and arm extended, offering me some sort of brochure. Mormon missionaries.

I simply smiled and waved and shook my head and walked on. 

Then, a block further on, it happened again. I heard the sound of an electronic piano playing "I Need Thee Every Hour," a Mormon hymn; then before I knew it, I was approached by another set of young smiling faces, speaking in German. Behind them, I could see I was in front of a Mormon church. A young sister missionary was seated at the piano, set up at the end of the sidewalk leading to the church entrance. Again, I was so surprised to find myself in this tableau that I once again just waved my hand, smiled, shook my head and walked on.

The LDS (Mormon) Church that I passed

The Victoria statue atop the Siegessäule

I thought about these encounters as I walked on into the Tiergarten toward the Siegessäule - a large column in the middle of the park. My reaction had been the same as it has been ever since leaving the LDS Church, i.e., to avoid contact, to avoid interaction. What would I say to them? "I'm from Salt Lake City, but I'm not Mormon," or, "I'm from Salt Lake City but I'm no longer Mormon," or, "I used to be Mormon but I came out and left the Church"? It seemed easier just to avoid the conversation. 

After all, I'd never come out to a couple of Mormon missionaries in Berlin. But these young men hadn't done anything to me. I was once one of them, 30 years ago in France. What would have been the harm in talking to them, being friendly toward them? What was I afraid of?

Plaque on the building where Christopher Isherwood lived.

Speaking of being gay, my day had started out by having breakfast with Dan in a cafe near his new apartment in the Schöneberg neighborhood of Berlin - which also happens to be the city's "gayborhood." There are many gay bars, cafes, shops and bookstores in the area, and it was here that Christopher Isherwood - whose writings were the source of the musical "Cabaret" - lived for four years from 1929-1933.

Cool mirror in the lobby of the Isherwood building. It reminded me of a sealing room in an LDS temple.


A "stolperstein" in the pavement in front of a building just down the street from the Isherwood building, commemorating a victim of the Holocaust who had lived there.

From the Siegessäule  I turned and walked up the Strasse des 17 Juni toward the iconic Brandenburg Gate, in front of which the Berlin Wall used to run. 

Strasse des 17 Juni

Workmen had blocked off the area immediately in front of the gate, making preparations for Unification Day celebrations in the next few days. I turned and headed for the old Reichstag, now the Bundestag, or national parliament building. It had been the burning of this building in 1933 that gave Hitler the pretext he needed to assume absolute power in Germany. 


A picture of the Reichstag at the end of World War II

From the Bundestag, I walked a few blocks south to visit two memorials to victims of National Socialist Germany - one to homosexuals persecuted by the regime and one to the millions who perished in the Holocaust. 





As I stepped up to look through the "window" in the memorial to see the film clip of the "kiss" (as mentioned in the previous photograph), I saw that someone had left a single yellow rose in memory. Then as I stepped back, I was startled by my own reflection in the window. It was a poignant and almost jolting moment when I realized that had I lived in Germany during those times, I might very well have been one of those victims. It was also a grim reminder of the disgusting homophobia that still exists - especially in high places of our government - in our own nation.

I then crossed the street to visit the memorial to victims of the Holocaust ...




After visiting these memorials, I walked further east along Unter den Linden. My destination was Museum Island. I had heard about the Greco-Roman collection in the Pergamon Museum and was looking forward to my visit. Unfortunately, when I got there, I learned that this wing of the museum is currently closed for renovation. Super bummer. But I felt better upon touring the nearby Altes Museum.

Statue outside the entrance to the Altes Museum

Berlin Television Tower as seen from the courtyard of the Pergamon Museum

I first learned about Antinous, the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, three years ago when Mark and I took a private tour of the Vatican Museum. A beautiful young man from what is now northwestern Turkey, Antinous became Hadrian's lover - one might even say husband in all but name. Homosexuality or bisexuality was not unknown, I learned, among Rome's emperors; but Hadrian took things to a whole new level, treating Antinous very much like a consort.

When Antinous, still a very young man, died under mysterious circumstances in the River Nile, Hadrian was grief-stricken and deified his lover. Statues and coins were commissioned throughout the empire, and a number of these are now found in museums across Europe and Britain. If anyone is interested in learning more about this story, I recommend the novel, "The Hadrian Enigma," by George Gardiner.

Two different statues of Antinous standing a few feet from each other in the Altes Museum

A bust of Antinous in the Altes Museum

I was also interested to see references on Greek cups in the Altes Museum to another "gay" couple - Achilles and Patroklos of Iliad fame. 

Detail on a cup: Achilles bandaging his lover, Patroklos

Detail: Soldiers fighting over Patroklos' body outside the walls of Troy

Several years ago, I read a beautiful book by a classicist that dramatizes in a sensitive, tasteful and loving way this legendary relationship between the demigod Achilles and his Patroklos. I would highly recommend it: "The Song of Achilles," by Madeline Miller.



So much to learn and appreciate!

Now, back to the Mormon missionaries. I had thought throughout the day about my morning encounters, and I decided that, if they were still there as I returned to Dan's, I would talk to them. I wasn't sure exactly what I'd say or how far I'd go; but I decided it was silly not to at least say hello. Alas, they had left; no sign of them, but I felt I had made a small amount of progress by at least being willing to open up a vulnerable part of myself and grow through doing so.

The day ended with a fun evening with Dan and Russ. Dan had found the premiere episode online of the new "Will and Grace" show, and we all three sat out the couch in their living room, surrounded by boxes from their recent move, Dan's laptop open on one of them, sipping wine and laughing. It felt so good to me to be with gay friends as I watched this episode. When the series ran 10+ years ago and I was closeted, it was one of those shows that I didn't permit myself to watch: it was too gay. I had watched the first few seasons later on DVD, but it was by myself. So it felt good to be with good, gay friends to see this first episode of the new show. It was one of those special experiences from this trip that I'll long savor.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Reflections on Champagne and Being Gay


I'll admit to never having developed a love of Champagne. There's a part of me that somehow feels inadequate in not having done so. After all, EVERYBODY loves Champagne, right? The marketers in the big houses in Épernay and Reims have been working diligently for over 200 years to convince the world that it cannot live without the bubbly wine, and they have been hugely successful. 


I thought, maybe I just haven't met the right bottle of champagne.

Frankly, as I write this sitting in Charles de Gaulle Airport waiting on a flight to Berlin, this situation reminds me of how I felt about being "attracted to men" during the 10+ years between going through puberty and joining the Mormon Church, when I felt that my lack of attraction to women could be explained - indeed MUST be - by the fact that I just hadn't yet met the right woman.


Both situations required me to grin and bear it if I wanted to be like everyone else. Surely the problem was/is with me and not with the product - in one case champagne, and in the other case heterosexuality. It took me approximately 40 years after suddenly discovering that men turned me on to come out of the closet and embrace the fact that I am gay. And it took me about the same amount of time to discover that, while champagne doesn't (as my dad used to say) "honk my trigger," ratafia does. 

Ratafia?

Let me explain.

I joined another small-group tour in Paris yesterday morning. When the driver/guide, the cute Victor, picked me up - mercifully at the reasonable hour of 7:45 instead of 6:30 - there were already three youngish Americans in the back seat. Young Asian-Americans, Michael, his wife and a friend (whose names, alas, I have forgotten), they were in Paris for a week before attending the destination wedding of a friend in Angers in the Loire Valley.


Paris was uncharacteristically foggy as we headed out of the city, east toward Champagne. As we drove, visibility got worse instead of better, and by the time we arrived in the heartland of bubble-land, we could see hardly anything. We chatted along the way, however, getting to know each other a bit. Turns out Michael, who is of Japanese descent, collects Japanese whiskey (who knew?), and had researched just how much alcohol one is allowed to bring back into the United States. Victor gave him the name of a couple of stores in Paris he should visit. I found myself wishing that I had a bit more time so as to visit these stores to look for a particular single-malt Scotch (as if I'd have room in my luggage for one more bottle of booze/wine).

Our first stop was L'abbaye Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers, a Benedictine abbey that was the home and is the final resting of Dom Pérignon, effectively the patron saint of the Champagne industry.

The tombstone of Dom Perignon in the abbey of Hautvillers

If Dom Pérignon is the patron saint of the champagne industry, then surely the house of Moët & Chandon is one of its most important pilgrimage sites. This was our next destination, where we joined a tour of the house and their famous cellars, carved out of the chalk below the city of Épernay. I desperately wanted to enjoy - really enjoy - the champagne we tasted at the end of the tour, but I found it didn't really turn me on - much like my high school and college (female) dates.

From there, we drove to the village of Monthelon, where we had lunch and enjoyed more tastings at the house of a small producer, Julien Chopin. 



I admit to finding the various types of champagne that they served with lunch more enjoyable. Perhaps it was because they were served with food.


But the epiphany came when the cheese course was served. This is when we were all treated to a small glass of ratafia made from Meunier grapes.


Ratafia? I had never heard of it, and I felt somewhat better when our guides said that, even in a Paris wine shop, it would be unlikely that people would be familiar with it. 

Ratafia, it turns out, is a fortified wine of about 18% ABV that is produce only in Champagne from the same grapes - Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay - that are used to produce champagne. I was entirely hooked after one sip. FINALLY! I had found a champagne product that suited me. The producer at whose house we were eating - Julien Chopin - has a passion for ratafia, and I was so enamored of the drink that I asked if I could sample the Pinot Noir product with our cherry/raspberry tarts that were served as dessert.


I wish I'd had room to bring home a large bottle, but I did make room for three small ones. After all, I had finally "come out" and embraced my true attraction to ratafia. ;)

We rounded out our afternoon by visiting a cooperative in another village across the Marne River, then it was back to Paris. Frankly, by the time I arrived back at my flat, I was day-tripped-out. It's been a wonderful four days, but it's now time to head to Berlin for my birthday weekend, then home.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Lively Lunch in Mont-Saint-Michel


In a sense, I had waited 35 years for the opportunity of seeing Mont-Saint-Michel - a desire fulfilled yesterday. But at the end of the day, it wasn't seeing the Mont that made the day special; rather, it was the lunch I had with two strangers, an experience I'll long remember.

It was another early start as I left my flat in the Marais around 6:00 and walked to the meeting point in central Paris. The driver was waiting for me, and we then left to pick up a couple who were staying near the Arc de Triomphe. They climbed into the back seat of the car, and we set off for Normandy. We all dozed and didn't talk much - except for the driver/guide. He launched into a monologue after picking up the couple, giving us some basic information about the Paris region and about Mont-Saint-Michel, and I immediately thought how much he sounded like Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau.

After a 3-1/2 hour drive, we arrived at our destination. I have to say it was thrilling to see when the Mont first came into sight.



I say I had waited 35 years to see this iconic location because I made my first trip to France in the spring of 1982, when I came to Paris to see a college friend who was studying there his senior year. I then returned 2-1/2 years later on a Mormon mission. Though I lived in and visited many parts of France while a missionary, I never made it to Mont-Saint-Michel because of its relatively remote location. And though Mark and I visited France twice during our years together, we were in other areas of the country.


Our tour included lunch at the (apparently) famous restaurant, La Mère Poulard, and by the time we arrived after having crossed the causeway from the mainland, we had about 25 minutes to walk around the village at the base of the Mont before meeting up for our lunch reservation.




It was only after sitting down to lunch that I got to really talk to and get to know my tour-mates, Miesha and Paul. I had assumed they were a couple, but found out that they are merely friends who were spending a few days in Paris. They had decided on a lark the previous day to take the tour, and I'm certainly glad they did; otherwise it would have been just me, and they day would have been far less interesting.


Paul is from a small village north of Manchester, England, and Miesha had met him while going to university some years ago. She is from Malaysia and was back in England on holiday visiting friends. They were quite the crack up. She was relentless in teasing Paul and was downright funny in her irreverence and exuberance. 

Paul was more reserved, but frankly is one of the most interesting, remarkable people I have ever met. During the course of the conversation, I learned that he is a firefighter in a city in central England, though he is looking to possibly move into another field of work in the future. He described how he had been extremely lucky to obtain his position right out of school, as firefighting jobs used to be highly coveted because of job security and pension benefits. He hadn't expected to get the job when he applied, especially when he found out he was up against a decorated war veteran; but he did.

It became apparent as Paul talked that he is an extraordinarily hard-working young man who currently, in addition to his main job, takes on extra shifts in London in connection with the aftermath of the recent Grenville Tower fire. He also works other part-time jobs - and the principal motivation for doing so is to provide financial support to his parents, who apparently recently went through a bankruptcy.


It was this desire to help his parents that led to his current living accommodations: an old camper van. He had made plans to take a nine-month sabbatical from his work, having saved enough money through his frugality to do so, and had sublet his apartment during his time away. Just as he was getting ready to leave, however, he discovered the extent of his parents' financial problems and cancelled his trip.

He went on to describe -- with much prodding and laughter from Miesha -- the troubles he had had with the travel van - how he discovered shortly after buying it that it leaked like a sieve; how he had planned to park it on fire station property but ended up having to park it on a vacant piece of land; how his back-up plan for power was solar panels, but how the place he had managed to find to park the van was completed in the shade; how he therefore had to cart a portable generator to work at the fire station every day to charge it up so that he'd have power in his van. It went on and on, a sort of comedy of errors that made for a fascinating story and would, I told him, make for an interesting reality TV series.

But one of the things that made Paul seem even more remarkable to me was that, as he told his stories throughout the course of our lunch, he was completely self-prepossessed, unassuming, guileless and utterly charming. And authentic. During another part of the conversation, again in response to prodding from Miesha, Paul talked about how he had taken finance and accounting courses in his "spare time," thinking he might like to work in those fields. But at the end of the day, he decided he didn't want to go in that direction. He wanted to find something he truly enjoys doing and in which he can be who he is.

Throughout it all, Paul struck me as an exceptional young man (I say young because I'm easily old enough to be his father), and I could happily have sat there at that lunch table for hours talking to him and Miesha. (I'll admit, too, that the experience gave me renewed hope of finding a special someone someday with whom I can share my life.)


Another beautiful day, another beautiful experience. Grateful.

Today, off to Champagne ...