Travels with Children: Paris Revelations, 2017
"Marie Antoinette Marie Antoinette Marie Antoinette. Her name was Marie Antoinette. And this is where she lived. And her name was Marie Antoinette kid,” he said, sensing, on some level, that he might be losing his equanimity.
The gravel crunched beneath their feet.
"Uncle Ivan…” she began.
"Marie Antoinette,” he countered peremptorily, mumbling, and reached for a cigarette.
"'No’? ...No, what?”
The silence was filled with yet more crunching, then that came to an end. "Now how – on earth - can I possibly answer that question?” he asked in his best calm, soothing voice. In his mind he sounded like Bing Crosby. "…Darling.”
"No,” she began, again. “I mean I was going to ask you 'Why did she live here?’”
"Oh. Okay,” he muttered and his eyes darted across the garden – possibly for somewhere to escape. He took a long drag on his cigarette and realized, miraculously, he’d already smoked much of it. “I would not know where to begin,” he said, then tried anyway, “Remember Goldilocks?”
"Good,” he found his voice uttering, “Basically the same way.”
They marched a few more yards over the small stones.
"Now stop terrorizing your uncle and ask yourself some brilliant questions, but silently this time, in your head,” he said, then added, “See how long you can do that. I’ll time you!”
He held his left arm up and looked intently in the vicinity of his wrist, adjusting his eyebrows to display appropriate solicitude.
Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully and he watched her mind swing into action.
Stomping along the Seine the previous day with Notre Dame Cathedral behind them and the Eiffel Tower rising in the distance above the chilly city, with the fragrance of blooming cherry blossoms still a memory, they passed through the stench of the unmentionable and gazed around the vendors of tiny Eiffel towers, old magazines, books and postcards of yesteryear to the buildings on the opposite shore, and he remembered he was in Paris with his American nieces to fine-tune their sensibilities to a 'higher culture'.
"Hey big kid. Stop picking your nose, s’il vous plaît…” He checked her face for a smile.
He exhaled slowly.
Ivan Von Noshrilgram Jr imagined the roads snaking up and down the foothills of the Himalayas towards the town of Dharamsala. In his mind it was monsoon season, the rain crashing on the feeble asphalt in gigantic slabs, and he wondered if those very roads would be washed away this year. In his mind he saw the tiny wooden hut, built from the profits of countless small cups of spiced tea, saw it clinging by its fingertips to the rock face overlooking an immense green valley disappearing into clouds. What, too, would become of it? Would it be pushed over the edge? He was filled with empathy.
Outside the Palace of Versailles, they drifted towards the top of the stairs that descend to the circular water fountain and, beyond that, what appears to be an alien landing strip.
"Where is the princess?”
"She's…” he began, hesitating. "She left. …She died.”
"Why'd she die?”
"It was a long time ago. Hundreds of years ago. It happens.”
Here is the conversation he had while showing the photos from their Paris trip back at the Foundation:
"Here's a picture of us all very very tired in front of the Arc de Triomphe. Here's one of my American niece talking in front on the Pont Neuf. She needs braces. Here's another one of her talking… Oh here’s a good one of us all tired in front of the L'église de la Madeleine. The youngest was just getting the flu. Here's a particularly singular statue of… just before…”
A revelation at the Louvre Museum:
In the Louvre Museum, beneath the glass pyramid. He sees the man. The man's got a locked jaw, lips almost pouting, short black spikes of hair, the hue offset by the bluish white scalp beneath, and a face conjured to appear bored and threatening at the same time, but the eyes hiding behind dark Terminator sunglasses have that anxious, startled expression, like too much is happening all at once. The man's eyes drift around him with a forced casualness, like a seasoned member of a Special Forces Op, prepared to ‘take down’ any, or even a team of, terrorists, or perhaps space alien robots. Or be sent off to gleefully kill Taliban in Afghanistan. "What panache,” Ivan thinks. … It feels like they’re being invaded by America. This is the 'America’ his sister and he are trying to protect his nieces from: defensive and militaristic, ignorant and deluded. The ugly imagined offspring of the great culture of Sparta.
Here comes a revelation:
They staggered past the incomprehensible beauty before them in the vast chambers of the Louvre. Stomping over each other's feet, they often pursued conflicting trajectories, frequently with eyes directed at the ceiling above. Finally, they slowed and their gaze fell upon the dark magnificence of the Code of Hammurabi of ancient Persia then to the glowing marble statues of the Ancient Greek and Rome Room. Standing, stiffly, next to their middle-aged uncle, the young girls gazed at the mostly naked forms of fine young men wearing hats, or gripping spears, or patting sheep, their mute apprehension accompanied by the giggling of other children passing by quickly. To their right, chiseled thighs and pectoral muscles burst forth like fruit too ripe for the vine. To the left, a solid, curved spine nestled between eternally-flexing, muscular shoulder blades, practically glistening. And just above them, almost in their faces, sturdy buttocks trembled not under the weight of their own glorious torso… Uncle Ivan tugged at his belt, soberly. Examining these marvels, the models (of youth, beauty and vitality) of which long ago had perished, his second most frequently occurring thought that day, at the age of 47, was really just a nagging suspicion that, most probably, he'd have to watch his consumption of cheese from then on, or purchase a stationary bike and use it a lot, or, both. Dark clouds were gathering.
A revelation beneath the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile:
Use what children know to help them understand the world around them.
The buds were just breaking from the tips of the delicate branches above them as they marched up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Taking long spirited steps he swung the girls on his arms. Their delirious cries, high-pitched, rose up as 'the Arc' began to loom. In preparation for this moment he'd dropped enticing anecdotes detailing the evolution of the sublime beauty of the great City of Lights, the stone and metal bridges that, over time, began to stretch across the river, the widening of streets to make life more pleasant for the Parisians, the sprouting of bistros and the rise of café culture, where artists, writers and philosophers had once gathered. All of this was done stealthily in an attempt to not replicate the trite pedantic tone of a lecture but more the slow turning on of lights around the girls, so that as the day bloomed before them there would be more light in their lives, perhaps, he imagined, even magic.
But a dark turn - because life is not all shopping and cocktails - was secretly planned, and it lay in store for the young ladies as they looked up at the great Arc. "This magnificent arc” he said, employing what he realized later was a decidedly Parisian accent, "was constructed to honor those who died in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned its construction after the victory at Austerlitz, in 1806...” He gazed up at the structure dreamily.
"Excuse me, Uncle Ivan. Why are the people always not wearing pants …in these things?”
"Over here girls! Look down this street!” he said, and swung his arm back towards the path from which they'd come, then pointed through the Arc, as if someone, or something, would soon pass under it. "The Nazis once strode triumphantly through this very arc during the Second World War and continued down the Champs-Élysées... In fact,” he said, and paused for effect, "the City of Lights was occupied by these very men! …Can you just imagine that?!”
The girls looked at each other, seemed to make some silent mental note.
"What does 'occupy’ mean?” the older girl murmured resigned.
"Occupy…?” He was stuck, but identified the problem in a microsecond: American education, and television.
As if reading his mind she said, "I am only seven, you know.” She pointed with her thumb to her sister, "And she's four and a half.”
He smiled, "Who's that boy who lives next door to you? The fat one.”
"Ed, but he's not fat. He's got big bones. That’s rude, Uncle Ivan.”
"Well, okay,” he chuckled, “we'll debate that at a later date. No. Actually. He IS a fat kid. Your generation has a problem. Seriously. Do you know what the Body Mass Index is? BMI?”
He looked down and caught their expressions.
"No. You don't,” he said, almost to himself. ”Okay. Alright girls. 'Fat' might not be a polite word, but it's honest. Anyway...imagine if Big Ed strode into your place and said your house was his now, and he took control of the remote control for your television with its forty-nine channels? (Or however many it has),” he said, then added, hissing, "Wouldn't let you even touch it!” He tried not to blink as he looked down at them in an attempt to help them absorb this horror.
"Will he do that?” the younger one asked alarmed, pulling on her sister's sweater and struggling to swallow.
He shrugged casually, taking an extended drag on his cigarette.
She raised her hand, "What's ‘shtrode?’”
To maintain the dramatic tension he didn't answer the little girl’s question. "Edward would 'occupy’ your house. That's wrong, right?”
They both nodded.
"That's what the Nazis did?”
"What are Nazis?” the older one said, losing interest rapidly.
"…'Nazis’?” he snorted. “They’re Nazis!”
They looked at him blankly. Did he have to explain everything? Did they watch Gilligan's Island every day over and over, and over, and over?! For God's sake.
This internal dialogue was getting them nowhere.
"Do you remember Bedknobs and Broomsticks?” he asked impatiently, his voice lowered. "…The movie? We watched it in the hotel room. You ate all the party nuts…”
"Yes… Oh! Are the Nazis the bad guys?!”
"Always.” Now he had them.
"They were here, just like in Bedknobs and Broomsticks?!” the older one asked looking through the arc as if she thought she could see a wall of smartly-dressed German military men, circa 1940, parading towards them.
"Yes!” he said, elated.
The girls directed their gaze up and down the boulevard in awe, then grew nervous. Their Uncle Ivan was getting to them! Their mother wouldn't even recognize them when they descended to the tarmac! He was elevating his American nieces in Paris!! A song should be written.
He watched the impact dissipating in the little one.
"I wish we had a flying bed…”
"Me too. Imagine that. That'd be amazing!” she said, looking at her uncle pointedly.
He missed India.
The little one kicked Marie Antoinette's backyard gravel and watched it fly in an arc before her.
"How long did the princess live?”
"Not sure. Not very.” He checked his pockets and to his alarm realized he'd smoked his last cigarette.
"Why not?” the girl asked, as if this might be the last straw, the one that would destroy their day.
"Because her head got separated from her body, mostly. That's why.”
They stopped in front of a statue reclining tensely. It looked, with the long flowing beard, to be about seventy-five years old but with the body of a linebacker with a sports scholarship from a top American university, in the vicinity of his twenty-second year.
"Look at that girls! Doesn't that look like your beloved Uncle Ivan, with his shirt off? Remember when we were at the pool? I was talking to Miss Carlyle, from Houston. I lit her cigarette…”
The older one glanced at the statue. "…No, it doesn't.”
"Whyn't there any Pokémon statues, Uncle Ivan?” (Because they were not at Paris Disneyland, which he won’t tell her exists until the moment the plane lands in North America.)
"Look at this statue,” he countered, not to be pulled into their darkness. “It's magnificent!” he said, realizing he'd used that word at least seventeen times that afternoon in an attempt, however futile, to ennoble the tone of their dialogue.
The older one leaned in and examined the reclining nude, a small metal sign placed conspicuously just below the firm buttocks. "What is it?”
"Holy moly. Read. You can read. Read the plaque! You're in the highest level in your year two class. You read more than half of Barbie Princess in the taxi. …I was eating books, literally, at your age.”
"I'd also like to highlight, girls, that I know almost nothing about France, or French.”
He said this. Nonetheless, he attempted to read French, made it feel right by approximating the sound of something delicious you might order at a Barista on Rue Saint Germaine. He felt his confidence growing. "Pe… Pelouses...” He tried. "Oh. I don't know. It’s not English.”
He saw the face of his older sister like an apparition before him; it seemed to say, 'Ivan, please. Please help me with the girls. You're my only hope…’ This engaged his resilience. Suddenly he felt he really could explain to these young girls what this statue was trying to communicate, somehow. …He remembered he'd seen a painting inside the palace, one of the royal family, but it was a scene from an ancient Greek myth, or something to that effect. The artist had captured the essence of the story but painted their faces over the main characters. He’d laughed at this particular self-indulgence. From this thought he contemplated the ancient historian Herodotus and the sounds of other ancient Greek and Roman names. He knew he had a body of knowledge and an emotional maturity that allowed him to solve this ‘challenge’. He could reach these girls! He could use his knowledge, resolve and vast personal resources to explain what this charming statue before them was attempting to communicate. His girls could return to American with a heightened awareness, an expanded consciousness of history, human motivation, and even aesthetics. He would use his knowledge of Latin languages like a detective and convey the meaning of the French to his nieces so that they would see not just a naked senior citizen with a long unkempt beard lying on his side in someone else's garden, but beauty, the aspiration of greatness, the universal desire for transcendence!
But first, here's a list of the amazing new French words and expressions he accumulated over their stay in Paris. (AKA his list of ailments or things he needed to tell a doctor):
Mal de tête
Des frissons et de la fièvre
"Girls,” he said. “Come close. Gather 'round!” The gravel ceased to crunch. They huddled at the top of the stairs, at the edge of the patch of grass, the naked seventy-five-year-old man reclining stiffly, continuing to gaze distracted over their hunched shoulders. A feeling of conspiracy hovered in the air and Ivan felt the distance between himself and his nieces evaporate. He looked to the small sign beneath the statue with determination. “Ladies! We bring a vast amount of knowledge to every new encounter!”
The girls blinked at the apparent non sequitur.
"Stay with me,” he said. “I could look at this statue and recognize the likeness to images of God I have beheld.” He pointed to clarify. "I see the long beard. The powerful shoulders, the large chin. The well-defined pectoral muscles… I could say it looks like a god, and so perhaps it is. But, look over here. Hey! Over here kid.” He pointed at the small sign below, rising from the grass before the man. "I also have knowledge of English, and ancient myths, Greek, Roman, Persian, Hindu and even… Excuse me. I'm over here,” he said. "Am I invisible? Has my mute button been pressed? …Did you notice I was talking?”
He raised his hands in the air with obvious glee and looked as if he might break into song, as a fish might in an animated Disney film. Again, he had the girls' attention!
"When I read this seemingly meaningless sign I can recognize the Latin language. I also know that the very wealthy love to have images of themselves that are not entirely accurate and sometimes will even paint themselves into stories so as to exaggerate their feelings of importance, and also to communicate this impression to others. For example, Sylvester Stallone once had a ridiculous sculpture of himself and…”
"Who?!” the older girl winced.
"I'm hungry!” the smaller one chimed in, sensing another long monologue coming.
"I'm almost done.” He read the title of the statue, his tempo halting, "'Pelouses’… The end of this sounds like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He believed that nothing stayed the same; the only constant was change. …Think about it.”
He could see their eyes glassing over. The younger appeared to be going cross-eyed.
He spoke quicker, replicating a singsong manner that they could identify with and pointed at the guy with the long beard, whom he now realized looked to an uncanny degree like his Year Ten fitness instructor. "Interdites was his last name. 'Mr Interdites!' How are you today, Mr Interdites?!” he said and impotently pretended to shake his hand. "…Interdites is a very Greek sounding name, like Heraclitus, Archimedes, Icarus…”
The girls began to ground the pebbles beneath their runners as they adjusted their position. One of the three had just passed gas.
"Why can't you return to India, Uncle Ivan?”
"Interdites Interdites Interdites!”
The younger one stood up and sighed, the older one pointing at the sign in a vague manner.
"Pelouses Interdites!!” he blurted, half to himself, and yanked out an enormous tuft of grass. It looked like a hairpiece. "I have knowledge of ancient myths and fables. I've explained esoteric matters in an amusing way at countless cocktail parties across the Mediterranean,” he said. "…I’m sure I've heard this name before!” he added with a semblance of rising confidence, but it sounded more like ‘I believe, officer, that I saw my driver's license just a moment ago in my Adidas bag here’.
It was coming to him.
Still pointing at the sign, the older girl said, "It says in English there below the French. I can read it.”
He locked eyes with his niece and felt, suddenly, as if he were crouching in the backyard of Marie Antoinette in his boxers. "…Really?” he said, squeezing as much enthusiasm as possible into his delivery, while, by degrees the gentlest asinine expression overtook his face.
"It says, 'Keep Off The Grass’...”
The girls exchanged a knowing glance. He dropped the mangled grass from his hand and saw at the corner of his left eye what looked like an approaching security guard.
"Uh-oh,” his older niece said then whispered as the sound rose of the tiny stones being ground underfoot, “Here come those Nazis…”
Ivan Von Noshrilgram Jr looked up to the older girl and their eyes met.
He felt the smile break across his face and the gulf between them disappear, "…Good girl, Shalindi.”
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