“Pinch me,” says Susan as we cross the Seine from the Left Bank to face the sun-drenched Gothic towers of Notre Dame. “I can’t believe we’re back here.”
We peel off jackets and join the throngs of tourists and worshippers outside the Cathedral. Despite the lyrics of the Cole Porter song – “I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles” – it’s only April, but the temperature this afternoon sizzles near 80.
We’ve visited Paris at earlier stages of our lives – nine years ago with our teenagers, when we witnessed a suicide at the Eiffel Tower and a young woman in some ecstatic trance dropping her dress at Chartres Cathedral; 25 years ago, during our disastrous Open Relationship period before we had children; and separately back in 1968, long before we met, when Susan spent a year in a study abroad program and I coincidentally buzzed through Paris on a speedy trek across Europe with my college roommates.
This trip is different, and our lives have changed. Back home in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve left behind an empty nest; our kids are no longer teenagers and now have their own lives. We’ve evolved way past the very early distracted-by-other-people phase of our relationship, and our only agenda now is to enjoy a relaxing week together in the City of Light – April in Paris – and to find each other again on our first trip alone together in many years.
We sit on the wall facing Notre Dame and embrace like a pair of young lovers in a Cartier-Bresson photograph. “Thank you for bringing me here,” she whispers as she nuzzles my neck. We wander back through the warm streets of the Left Bank and rest in the shade of the Luxembourg Gardens, where we recall renting little boats for our kids to sail on the pond. Having them grown and gone has been particularly difficult for me; being Dad was always my favorite job. On this trip, I’m sure, we’ll revisit some of the places we took them – Chartres, the Musee d’Orsay, the Louvre, Giverny, the Rodin Museum.
The timing of our trip is a bit odd. Two months before, I celebrated my fifty-tenth birthday, but my freelance career is sputtering at a low ebb, and work and cash are hard to come by. On the other hand, two of our closest friends have recently been diagnosed with cancer and started chemotherapy. Life and our good health feel very precious. Seize the time, I tell myself. Besides, we have lots of credit, more than we should ever use.
We’ve been very lucky. On a business trip to Paris several months before, I reconnected with a cousin I hadn’t seen in many years, who invited me to come back and visit in the small studio apartment he and his French wife keep for visiting family and friends. So we cashed in 100,000 frequent flier miles for our roundtrip tickets and made plans to farm out the dog.
Unable to book seats to Paris, I opted to fly us to London instead and take the train through the Channel Tunnel. Amazingly, a colleague of mine in England then offered us his London flat for our two layover days there. This vacation is partly a reward for Susan, who spent a year in behavioral therapy overcoming an elevator phobia that had limited our traveling. She thanks me again for the trip as we ride the Metro to the Champs Elysees one day. “You earned it, kid,” I tell her, and we lean comfortably against each other while standing on the train.
Cousin David takes us to a Bistro in the 15th Arrondissement, near his home, where we savor a degustation – a tasty white soup, a remarkable veal dish, green asparagus with a light vinaigrette and transparent thin bacon slice, homemade Madeleines, and a fine Beaune Burgundy – all for a price that would feed a family of twelve for a month in some cultures. But the food talk is scrumptious. We’re enchanted that each night’s menu is an exercise of discovery for the chef, depending on which fresh, seasonal ingredients he finds that morning at the markets.
We do go to the Louvre and revisit some old favorite artworks – Delacroix’s revolutionary “Liberty Leading the People” (bare-breasted, for some reason), Gericault’s morose but vaguely hopeful “Raft of the Medusa” – and stumble on some new ones in the pristine sculpture courts in the Richelieu Wing.
On the hottest day of our visit, we stroll out into the Tuileries Gardens. A young couple occupies a wall near the Place de la Concorde, limbs entwined in a position that would suggest intercourse, if they weren’t clothed and motionless. We head for an empty bench, but it seems all of Paris is out today in the fine weather, and a young family sprints ahead to beat us to the seating. After several similar failures, we secure a bench in the shade and pass the time watching the parade of humanity and reading our books, both set in Paris – Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities for me, and a Georges Simenon mystery for Susan. Soon I get drowsy, recline on the bench and snooze with my head in her lap as she strokes my hair.
We visit Montmartre and are shocked by the densely packed tourists patronizing the portrait artists in the square, even mid-week in the spring. Ducking into an authentic-looking café, I order a croque monsieur and realize it was pre-made and microwaved. We walk for hours across the city on another steamy day, down the Boulevard de Magenta, through the bridal and formal clothing districts, and eventually meet David for falafels in the Marais.
On the day we had planned to visit the Musee d’Orsay and Rodin Museum, I get a call from Eric, a Parisian colleague of mine who invites us on an outing. “Those museums will always be there,” says Susan, and we visit Eric and his family in the suburbs east of the city. They graciously take us into their home for champagne and then out for lunch to a guinguette, a traditional cabaret/restaurant on the banks of the Marne River.
As we watch Eric and his wife Paule, both in their 40s with young children, we see ourselves years before – we were older parents, too, both working professionals, thoroughly immersed in the job of raising kids. Paule tells us she often gets home late from work and uses familiar shortcuts to prepare meals, even frozen foods. Would parenting have been easier if we’d done it when we were younger, I wonder? In some ways, yes. Certainly we might have had more stamina for the sleep torture inflicted by our infants. Were we ready? Absolutely not. Do I want to go through it again? No way, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
In the end, we revisit few of the places we took our kids. We linger in bed each morning, getting a late start on our touring, but relishing each other’s company.
Years before, the summer after I graduated from high school, my parents went to Europe for the first time. I think about them frequently as we swelter on our way to the Picasso Museum, near the end of our stay in Paris. Now I understand their desire to travel. I was the younger child in my family, about to flee the nest, but I had no clue that my folks were grieving, in their own way, for the tight family we had been … until the same thing happened to Susan and me. That first trip ignited a mutual passion for travel that took my parents to many countries in the ensuing years. But they liked to get up and out by 6 and would have hated our relaxed attitude toward touring!
We walk to the Seine late in the day and hop a ride on the Bateaux Mouches. The cool air on the river is refreshing as the sun sets behind the city. “You’re my life,” says Susan as she squeezes my hand. The haunting song lyrics sneak back into my consciousness: “I love Paris every moment, every moment of the year.” We sit very close, embrace in this most romantic setting, and face the future together.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul: Empty Nesters, October 2008.