Monday, October 28, 2013

Playing Virgil in Paris

More than once during our weeklong stay in Paris, my friend Kathleen called me her Virgil. The allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy was both generous and characteristic of my learned friend. I was not leading her through anything close to the epic circles of hell and purgatory, although a major world capital can be a daunting landscape to negotiate.

Having written about a tour through the underworld for the Roman hero Aeneas, the classical poet Virgil was an understandable guide for Dante to summon into his own epic. A visitor to Paris on multiple occasions, I may have seemed to Kathleen the same kind of reliable and well-informed travelling companion.

Kathleen and I have been not only friends but colleagues for a quarter of a century. The conference we were attending would claim only part of the week, though, and our evenings were always free. Where ought we to eat? What interesting sites were close to our hotel? When destinations warranted other modes of transportations, how would we negotiate taxis or the Metro? This visit was not Kathleen’s first to the French capital, but she admitted she was not a planner.

And I am a planner.

The week before our arrival at CDG, I had used Mapquest to print out maps showing walking routes from our hotel to restaurants and museums and churches we might want to visit in the neighborhood. From my office at work I ordered tickets for a concert performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Salle Pleyel on a Friday evening. An hour before meeting up with Kathleen one morning, I went to a nearby Metro stop and purchased a carnet of ten tickets from the kiosk for our rush-hour trips to the conference center in the 19th. I either called restaurants myself to make our dinner reservations or engaged the concierge to help me with that task.

If Kathleen thought of me as her Virgil, she did things for me that Dante did not do for his Virgil. She let me take her to places that had a sentimental value for me. She helped me buy a simple begonia from one Monceau florist at the end of the rue Mouffetard and sat in Saint-Medard while I brought the flowers to a side altar in that favorite church of mine. At every lunch and dinner she moved effortlessly into the kind of significant conversation that I love, each of us probing both our own history and our friend’s. She offered me a day on my own if I wanted it and so made possible a solitary venture into the Marais and lunch at a restaurant another Boston friend of mine had recommended.

I am home now for two weeks. Last night I turned the heat on in my New England apartment for the first time this season. I walked from room to room and lowered the storm windows. I made the bed with flannel sheets.

Friends call and write. We tell stories and make plans.

Thank you, Kathleen.

Thank you, Paris.

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