I just flew back from a vacation in France, and boy, mes bras sont fatigués.
France is my wife's home country, and for the last couple of weeks I've been doing a lot of listening, as she and her family spoke français at mach-speed. Oh, I nodded as though I understood, and I laughed when they did. But I wasn't fooling anyone. My college French was about as useful in everyday conversation as Swahili.
It's tough, when you think of yourself as something of a wit, to be linguistically reduced to a third-grader, competent only at basic reading, ordering food and drink, and asking where the bathrooms are. I've resolved that by my next trip I'll be speaking fluently at a sixth-grade level, at least.
We spent much of our time in Marseille, where my wife's family lives. It's a warm, sunny place, sprawling over the hills surrounding the city's old harbor. The houses have tile roofs; the shutters and doors are painted bright colors; the sea is visible from every hill and promenade. Downtown reminded me of New Orleans — three- or four-story buildings with wrought-iron balconies overlooking busy fish and produce markets and sidewalk cafes. The streets are tiny and winding and everyone drives little roller-skate-sized cars or scooters. We ate bouillabaisse, couscous, and fabulous seafood. A wonderful city. Go, if you get the chance.
We took the TGV (high-speed train) to Paris for our final four days. I'd not been to Paris in many years. It is now inhabited by a race of super models — slender, elegantly dressed men and women of all ages, all of whom wear a scarf of some sort knotted around their neck. It's apparently the law. We stayed in the Sixth Arrondissement, the habitat of Hemingway and the American ex-pats. We drank espresso and wine in the historic brasseries, wandered the streets, shopped the boutiques, took the Metro, and hit the usual high spots. On the second day, I gave in to peer pressure, bought a scarf, and convinced myself I looked pretty chic. We ate lamb, duck, scallops, chocolate, and macaroons. The wine was good. Very good.
We returned to Memphis simultaneously refreshed and exhausted. The Memphis-Amsterdam flight is a great thing. It is sad that we are losing it. I missed March Madness, apparently. I even missed Memphis and was weirdly comforted by the fact that the big story in the daily paper when I returned was about a man whose car had been invaded by bees.
I'm still not sure what I'm going to do with this fancy scarf.
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...