Paris, A Rebirthday

Mali 2008

Paris, a Rebirthday

Sunday, 6 Jan, 2008. I’m 58 years and 1 day old. It’s my third day in Paris. I had been pretty anxious about traveling alone, and to Africa, no less. But with a couple of months to plan, I managed to do a daily meditation workout, and was feeling up for the challenge. The plan was, go to Paris, take 3 or four days and get over your jet lag in a city that’s more hospitable, rather than heading straight for Africa and the culture shock. A sound plan, everyone agreed.

I’ve started this journal several times. I thought at first I’d do a letter sized format so I bought a book made from recycled paper. Then I thought, ‘I’ll never be doing that much writing. I’ll be too busy. I’ll just take notes, point-form.' So I bought a smaller pad ... Then Katrina gave me one for Christmas. It fit into a lovely bag that she had hand-sewn and decorated. That was the one I finally packed. Each notebook had had a few beginning lines in it.

Katrina’s was stolen at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport an hour and a half after my arrival there on the morning of Friday, January 4th, along with everything else that was in my small carry-on knapsack. So much for the plan. Just a couple of hours ago I bought THIS book and am starting yet again. I certainly hope it will be the last beginning.

I arrive in Paris on Air Canada flight 418, all peace, wonder and preparedness, at 9 A.M. I get my big knapsack at the luggage carousel (thanks, god), find a cart for it and my small carry-on one, get through Customs, take my sweet time getting the lay of the land – in retrospect, I must’ve looked like a sitting duck (for shame) – asking the Info desk for the directions to the Vaneau Metro, where the Hotel Ferrandi was awaiting, then turning around, coming back with more questions ... “Where can I buy a phone card?” “Just over there, sir, at Le Relay.” This is all in French, by the way, which, for me, requires at least 25% more energy for every interaction.

It is a small shop, narrow and crowded. I wheel my cart in, and turn away from my luggage chariot long enough to buy a carte téléphonique for €7,50, about $10.00. I turn around, walk, pushing my cart for less than a minute when I realize that my small sac à dos is not there. I really do not know how to recount the feeling that gradually, but oh so heavily sweeps over me. It’s a fog rolling in with a sardonically menacing soundtrack. This is about 10:30.

Le Relay, scene of the crime.

I look everywhere, retracing my steps. Back at the little shop, the woman tells me what she thinks had probably happened and says I should go find the police. I find un policier (a cop) and he takes me to a little office and tells me he can’t deal with it, but says to go to one of his “colleagues” down past the next ticket counter. ‘Oh, boy, here comes the royal run-around,’ I think. Policier #2 asks me a lot of questions, filling out his form, a plainte, he calls it.

After about a half an hour, he asks me to sit and wait, but I say I’d rather be out there looking for the bag. The thief had probably dumped it somewhere, after taking out the camera and my new little Zoom H2 digital recorder. So I leave my chariot with the big knapsack and go looking. On the advice of the woman who sold me the phone card, I check a bathroom or two one floor below. Wastebaskets. Corners. Under the unoccupied stall doors (and if they were occupied, memorizing the feet). Nothing. Back upstairs, I’m walking next to a man talking on his cell. I’m not eavesdropping, but I hear, quite plainly, phrases sticking out in the fast French conversation: “a digital camera” ... “black knapsack” ... “no money”... (It was true. There was no money in the bag. Fortunately, Sharon had talked me into using a money belt under my shirt for passport, credit cards, and my stash of 1,000 Euros - $1,500). I look at the guy. We’re still walking side by side. He looks over at me. Keeps talking. He doesn’t look scared. He doesn’t look evil or even down-and-out. I look longer this time. He’s still talking about my bag. He stops. Looks at me. “Vous êtes le victim?
“Oui.” He’s a plain-clothes cop, pulling a little valise behind him. He had been on the phone with cop #2, the one who had taken my statement.

I join him and we search for another half hour or so. Hallways. The parking lot. More garbage cans. Opening the doors to utility closets. We run into his partner, yet another policier en civil, a young good-looking guy, also pulling a little valise. (I later learn that there are handcuffs and other police paraphernalia inside.) He walks me back to the office of cop #2 and we finish off the forms.

The police offices at CDG Airport.

The police office phone rings and I hear, in French, of course, “camera ... colour?” etc. My hopes rise. Cop #2 asks me if my camera was a movie or a still. Still, I tell him. Black or silver? Crap. The thing has only been mine for a couple of weeks, and I’ve hardly used it, and in all this stress I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s silver. “Argent,” I say, which means ‘money’, but close enough. Make? Canon, A7-something. I am resurfacing, getting excited. Hope is making my blood flow again. Maybe this would turn out alright. Poof. It was a bad dream. He hangs up. Well?
“They may have found the thief.”
“The bag?”
“We don’t know yet, sir.”
It is then that I know I could buy another camera, another recorder, but the PAPERWORK! All my carefully scanned pages from the Lonely Planet, emails from other travelers, hotel confirmations, phone numbers ...

Later I would realize that even that was not the important thing. What really lay at the core was the randomness, the unpredictability of life. The potential for disaster. And me on Day 1 of three weeks of vulnerability, traveling solo, on the extremely unfamiliar turf of Africa. Two days later, here I sit in a café by the Seine, relatively content, one year older, catching up on my journal.

...back to the airport police office. During all this waiting other officers come in for their shift. Each and every male officer warmly shakes the hand of my Cop #2 behind the counter, and every female officer does the mwa mwa cheek-to-cheek thing to him. They all kibitz and laugh. It ‘s beautiful to watch. Some of them even greet me, sitting forlornly on my bench. I begin to see that I am witnessing a real camaraderie. A community, not just a cop shop. And not a donut in sight.

Finally, (it’s probably 1:30 or so) another officer comes in and says that I should come with him. By now, there have been several more calls and I now know that they have caught a suspect and that he has my camera. We walk about a kilometer through the airport (I’ve probably walked 10 – 15 km today, on two hours of sleep. Remember, 1:30 P.M. is really 7:30 A.M. for me) at a breakneck pace. This guy is tall with long legs. Not even 30. We finally come upon the two plain-clothes cops with a third man, tall and skinny, in a long charcoal wool coat. He has black hair, a three-day growth and bloodshot eyes. He’s angry and insisting it’s HIS camera. The cops show me the camera. Is this yours? “Oui. Absolument,” I say, nodding. The thief’s rant goes up a notch and I am glad to notice that he’s in handcuffs.

They take him away. I am escorted back to the office where I wait some more. More officers come on duty. Handshakes, cheek to cheek air kisses all around. There must be 12 of them in these two tiny gray-walled rooms with gray metal furniture and gray Formica countertop.

Finally plain-clothes cop #2 comes in and tells me to get my bags and come with him. We take the chariot through the airport and then he schlepps my big sack into the trunk of an old Escort and we drive about 10 minutes to the actual police station, 6 Rue des Bruyères, (French for heather) where I am to fill out more forms and meet more wonderful, caring dedicated policieres en civil. We gather round the gray desk with two computer monitors and watch airport surveillance camera footage. They ask me where I walked, and at what time. I do my best to remember. “There! That’s me. See? I’m wearing this hat.” I pull out my new desert chapeau and show them. A few moments later, Christophe, plainclothes cop #1, says “There he is! Le voleur.” Sure enough, the thief had been following me. He knew a mark when he saw one.

I go into a room across the hall to fill out more forms. When I come back, Christophe says, “There it is. Your knapsack.” And on the monitor I see the thief, outside the airport doors, one floor below Le Relay, scene of the crime, with my bag. More cops come in and out of this place, too, and always the handshake, the air kiss. They even smile and say hi to me, as though I worked there, as they crowd in to have a peek at the monitors and hear Christophe tell the story. Some nod. This is not their first encounter with this particular thief.

Finally, I am told that the hopes of finding my bag, which have been rising and falling in me throughout the ordeal, like a breath with a rhythm all its own, are slim. Plus, I can’t yet take my camera because, since there are no images in it, it is technically my word against the thief’s. They say they will likely call me tomorrow and I can come out and get my camera. It turns out to be a €75 cab ride. But I consider it a birthday present.

It is now about 3:45; almost 7 hours since my arrival in Paris that morning. We are finished at the police station, and the young good-looking cop drives me to the RER (train into Paris). He actually carries my large loaded knapsack to the car again for me. I manage to navigate the RER to the Metro and to the Vaneau stop, and the 3-block walk to l'hôtel Ferrandi, all the while scanning faces for potential attackers and thieves. To my eyes, it might as well be Dickensian London.

A station in the Paris Metro

Mary, a part timer, is manning the desk. She asks my name. I tell her. Blank response.
“Do you have a reservation here?”
“O fuck,” I think. “Yes,” I say.
“We don’t have your name on file, but don’t worry. Do you have your reservation number?”
”No. It was stolen.”
In walks a woman. She is obviously not a part-timer. She goes to a pile of papers. Flip, flip flip. “Ahh, yes. Mr. Natale?”
“Bienvenue.” It is Collette.

Up to my room. Pretty nice place. Arrived at last. Alone at last. It is quiet. I am stunned. It’s about 5:00 P.M. (11 A.M. for me. On two hours sleep.) I do a short meditation and find my centre a bit. I'm like one of those plastic punching clowns that always pop back up after having gotten whacked. Right now I'm at about 26°.

I had made a list of all the things that needed replacing, sometime while I was waiting at the police station. I try to make a game plan; balancing which items are easy to obtain with which are high/low priority. That I didn’t simply collapse in a heap on the bed is testimony to this life-force machine that my spirit is. It’s what got me through those 25 years of insane deadlines and 80 hour workweeks writing film music. I occasionally allow myself to marvel at it - usually with Sharon’s help. I know that to beat jet lag, ideally one should adjust one's sleep patterns as soon as possible to the new time zone. That means NOT going to bed at 5 in the evening. So I don’t.

My room at l'hôtel Ferrandi

View from my room

On my list is stuff like: - new knapsack.
- reconstruct important dates from memory
- call Jamie or Hannah ask them to go over to the house and email me important papers. (Sharon was with Layah at the cottage.) This of course means I’ll have to find an internet café, preferably one with Skype and a fast connection. Mary tells me Ferrandi charges €12/hr., but most cafés only cost about €4. She says there are a few nearby.
- find a pro music store to purchase a new Zoom H2 sound recorder, plus at least 2 gigs of memory and a case.
- retrieve important phone numbers, like airlines, hotels, tour guide, etc.
- memory cards and a case for the camera. Was I going to have to buy a new one? I wasn’t sure, so that meant waiting until I heard from the police.
- and on and on. It seems endless. But somewhere inside I know it is finite.

As I consider reconstructing this bit of my life that has been snatched, even as I begin to realize the list is finite, and doable, I feel, or rather I DON’T feel, relief. At first I had thought – and I even said it to the police – I don’t care about the camera. It’s the paperwork. I had spent so much time collecting info, emails, and printing it all up. I told them, “I’ll GIVE him the bloody camera if he’ll just tell me where he tossed the sack.” They had laughed and said, “Ce n’est pas une bonne idée, monsieur.”

Then, as I begin to see that I could even reconstruct the paperwork, and there's still no relief, I know that the problem is I’m face to face with the flimsy skin that protects us from disaster. From death. That’s when the tears come. Good tears. Necessary tears. I let it all in for a bit.

Then I set out to find an internet café and some dinner. A place called TaxiPhone is the perfect spot. Cheap, friendly, fast, and Skype-enabled. Dinner at Pizza Pino turns out to be a worse choice than the MacDonald’s on rue de Rennes, because it has the pretense of being fine food, when it is really the Montparnasse version of Pat ‘n’ Mario’s.

It is past 11 when I finally get to bed. At 2 A.M. I am wide awake - my brain spinning with feverish grief and fear. I get up and light the candle I had brought with me. The candle had been imbued with good vibes and intentions from a New Year’s Eve get-together with my dear friends Jerry & Kim, my partner Sharon, and my daughter Katrina. I sit on my bed and ask them to be at my back, to support me. I sob convulsively. I feel that they, in their separate time zones, hear me. Sharon & Kim 6 hours away in Knowlton Lake & Toronto, Jerry, 8 hours away in the Grand Canyon, and Katrina, 7 hours away in the Alberta Rockies. Before going back to sleep around 3:30, I remember realizing it was January 5th, my birthday.

birthday self portrait

My rebirthday present, candle and a bottle of Rescue Remedy and water.

I am awakened out of a deep dead sleep at 9:00 by Mme. LeCossou of the police with good news about the camera. But no bag. I jot her info down on a yellow sticky and tell her I’d be out later. Then I proceed to go out and buy what I need. There is a huge books & electronics store called FNAC which I had found while wandering around the previous night. They have the exact same Lonely Planet Guide for West Africa, and in English! They have camera cases and memory cards, too. In the stereo department, one of the salesmen is a musician, so he tells me where to go to find the Zoom H2. He jots down the directions for me.

I have one of my purchases gift-wrapped at a table that had been set up by a local charity. It’s my birthday, after all. Then I head back to the Ferrandi to drop my stuff and get a cab out to the airport to Mme LeCossou and my camera. At the front desk, I ask Collette to call me a cab. She asks where to, and I realize, after much pocket slapping, that I have lost the yellow sticky note. Did I have any paperwork from the police? she wants to know. They had given me duplicates of everything, but I have no idea where I have put it. I go back up to the room to look. No luck. I walk all the way back to the FNAC where I was pretty sure I had dropped the sticky. No luck. I head back to Collette. I think the cop’s name was Coffe or something like that. I remembered it began with c and that she had said “double f” (actually it was “double s.” They sound a lot alike over the phone when you're being woken out of a comatose slumber.) I am feeling like a doddering helpless 90-year-old.

So Collette takes me under her wing and braves the bureaucracy of the Paris Police Department, making call after dead-end call, looking for a female police officer named something like Coffe somewhere out by the airport. She Google-maps it and soon finds 6 rue des Bruyères, which I recognize. She somehow finds her way to Mme. Cossou, who says I should head straight out. Collette tells her to get the paperwork done in advance, because I would have my cab waiting to bring me back. She doesn’t ask me if this is o.k. until after hanging up. She obviously knows I was in need of a guiding hand.

My cab driver is a wonderful Haitian man who is very patient, listening carefully, speaking slowly, and explaining various French words to me. We share ideas about growth and independence, the difficulties of being far from family and friends, of traveling alone. He tries to explain the word “debrouiller”. Debrouiller, or se debrouiller, I find out later, means fend, or cope. “Se debrouiller seul” means to make your own way. Thank you for the vocab lesson. We find the police station, and Mme. LeCossou, who is very personable and sympathetic, tells me in the nicest way to watch my stuff from now on. I have the cabbie drop me at Le Home Studio, where I buy a new Zoom H2, and almost walk out of the store without my Visa card. I am still a bit of an exhausted, confused space cadet.

Nevertheless, I manage to find my way on the Metro, clutching my new bag every inch of the way, to the neighbourhood of the hotel. I want to buy some flowers for Collette. I have pretty well given up and am heading back to the hotel when I happen upon a flower shop. The first plant I notice has a sign that says Bruyère Blanc.” I take that sign as a sign and bring it back to Collette, who blushes, sputters, smiles and finally accepts it with many thanks from me.


My (re)Birthday Dinner

By around 7:00, I am feeling much better. I am ready for my birthday dinner. So I pack my candle, some matches and my camera and go down to ask Collette, recent recipient of the Bruyère Award, for a restaurant recommendation. She agrees with me that there are some really bad touristy restaurants in the Montparnasse area, but she says it’s also a place where lots of professionals, artists, and families live, so there are some very good neighbourhood spots. There is Le Petit something-or-other on rue Sévre, and right down our very same street are Le Petit Verdot and La Marlotte. I opt for the latter two, thinking I would walk down, check out Le Petit Verdot, then La Marlotte and decide between the two.

I can’t find either one. Planet to Lou. Come in, Lou. I stop and ask. Being the jet lagged, spaced out robbery victim that I am, the Marlotte was about 20 feet back. I had walked right by it, and the Verdot as well. Enough is enough. La Marlotte it is.

Restaurant Le Marlotte, rue Cherche Midi

I blow out their candle, light my own, and proceed to have the best meal I can ever remember, starting with a green lentil salad. I have no idea what to expect. I know about yellow lentils, and red, but not green. I just know lentils sound like a good kind of energy. I’d say it exceeded my wildest expectations, but, since I had no expectations, I’ll just say it was an outstanding dish. Then the main course, a slow braised beef dish with young carrots in a positively ‘is-this-GRAAA-vy?' gravy. Oh, my Lord. Thank you for the gift of taste buds. The two glasses of red recommended by my waitress are perfect.

Boeuf au something or other. Incroyable.

There ia a very friendly family sitting next to me. A couple in their mid-forties with a 17-year-old son. We chat a bit ... the Mrs. had been to Canada on several occasions ... I have a son, too ... I miss my family ... traveling alone ... stolen luggage stories, etc etc. When they hear me tell the waitress I want the profiterole au chocolat for desert because it is my birthday, they get quite enthusiastic. Funny, they had seen me light my candle, seen me take a picture of each course as it came out, but never said a word. I guess it suddenly made sense to them or something. The Mrs. wants to take a picture. I hand the camera to the husband because he is at a better angle. She says I will regret it and we have a good chuckle. The profiterole is from another planet. One where the saints are all gluttons, obesity is a virtue, vegetarians are outcasts and organic brown rice is the root of all evil.

Profiterole au chocolat. Note the pitcher of chocolate is still half full. Even I couldn't go that far.

Hubby takes a pic of birthday man with candle.

That brings me to today, Sunday, the 6th, the day I’ve been writing all this, here by the Seine. It’s on my to-do list. “Catch up journaling” right next to “Musée d’Orsay?”, the one touristy thing I had planned to do in Paris. Well, after another visit to TaxiPhone, the internet café, re-packing my bags and all, it was 3:00 by the time I got there and the lineup was pretty huge. So, the poor d’Orsay got crossed off the list and I walked along the Seine to find a quiet place to sit, have a café au lait and a crèpe and catch up.

a gray day on the river Seine

I got as far as “I consider it a birthday present” and it was time to hit the TaxiPhone again to Skype Sharon, get my bags from the back room of the Ferrandi and head for the airport for my Pointe Afrique flight. A photo of Collette and a couple more questions and I was off on the Metro and RER for Charles de Gaulle Roissy, Terminal 3. I was a bit worried that I hadn’t retrieved enough paperwork from Hannah to get my ticket to Mali, but it all worked out. The rest of this journaling was done while waiting for the Pointe Afrique flight. It was scheduled to leave at 12:30 a.m It’s now 2:10 the pilot says we’ll be leaving in 5 minutes. Right.

Also, while waiting I use my phone card to call my brother Steve. He reminds me of a trip my parents took to Paris in the 50's. Mom's camera was stolen and the police found it.

Next installment, on to Mopti, Mali, West Africa, and my 3-day pinasse trip up the Niger River to Tombouctou. I promise this next post will entail fewer words and lots more pictures, movies and soundclips. Here's a teaser:

scenes along the Niger. More to come...

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